The 5th Sunday of Lent: March 18th

March 18, 2018

Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.

(This sermon has been transcribed from live video.  Please click here to watch the video version.) 

Some of you know that I have this developed interest in ritual. I find ritual studies incredibly engrossing. And it’s not just the study of rituals themselves. I actually study the different theories that people generate to understand what a ritual is. And rituals are not only those moments in which we divide space and create special time, and set them apart through certain practices that we repeat time and time again-a little bit like the ritual of the Eucharist, which we’re about to do.

Rituals are also those moments in which we present ourselves in our world. And we engage in these little rituals of recognition so that these are performances of an identity. So shaking hands, for example, is a ritual – it’s a way of establishing who you are. And how you shake your hand says a lot about the kind of person you are. F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise has this moment where two boys from private school meet each other at Princeton, and they have this way of shaking hands that indicates that they are totally in charge of the world around them.

And what’s really interesting to me are those rituals that have become so embedded in a culture that we have forgotten why they exist in the first place. And it’s not so much that those rituals become empty. We think that they become empty, but in fact what makes rituals interesting to me is that, even in the midst of those performances, we have forgotten the background to them. Even in the midst of them there is a deep truth. And one of those rituals for me has been the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.

Somehow a feast day for a saint, celebrating his Christian witness, has become a ritual performance of ethnicity. And then somehow that ritual performance of ethnicity became somehow a ritual performance of the stereotypes of that ethnicity. And now St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated all over the world. One of the largest celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day is not New York City, where I was just watching them set up for the parade on Friday. And it’s not Corktown, Detroit, which is a massive festival of drunkenness.

It’s actually Japan – Japan has one of the largest St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the world. People just love dressing up in green and getting a little drunk on March 17th. It’s a ritual. And I have been thinking about this for a long time, because there was a moment in my life where St. Patrick became real to me. Not simply the story of the saint – I would go on the air when I was in London, Ontario, for reasons I cannot explain, maybe because my last name is Danaher – and the radio station would call me every year for an interview about St. Patrick. I’m not making this up.

And so I would get up and I would tell them, and the announcer was always Irish. I’m not really making this up. He would say, “Oh, thank you, Father Danaher. That was absolutely beautiful.” I can’t do an Irish accent, but you get the point.

No, I began thinking about St. Patrick’s seriously when I was in seminary. I was one of those seminarians, and seminary in my day – a lot of us were younger when we went. And it was a continuation of the social politics of high school. And I was cool enough to be invited to the parties, just like in high school, and yet I was studious enough to know all the nerds. And so I was in this bridge position where I would get invited to the cool kids’ parties, and then occasionally I would want to bring a nerd or two, or someone different to those parties, because I believe that parties should be open affairs, not closed affairs.

And one such moment happened at St. Patrick’s Day in 1992. My cool friends had this great idea that they would go to an Irish bar and drink a little beer on St. Patrick’s Day. And I got invited. And I had a friend of mine who was a remarkable guy. His name was Hanna Mansour and he was Palestinian. Every year in coming to do his seminary studies, he would have to travel from Palestine down to Egypt, and then he would fly over through a couple of stages before he’d arrive in Alexandria, Virginia. And he would be under surveillance the entire year while he did his seminary studies.

And he was intense. And we would sit and talk politics, and it was the first time that I had that kind of opportunity to talk about the Christian faith in the context of world events that were incredibly real to him. And they became real to me in the process, and I came to value him as a friend. And so I said, “Do you want to go to St. Patrick’s Day?” And he was not the kind of guy that loosened up. He was the kind of person that when he would smoke cigarettes, he would just completely focus on the cigarette.

There wasn’t the ritual thing where Westerners smoke a cigarette, where they say, “Aah,” you know? Or they drink coffee. It was all about the tobacco for him. He’d be like, [breathe in, breathe out noises]. And I used to watch him totally focused on this cigarette, I’d be like, “It’s just tobacco. Let’s just relax.” But, in fact, he just did that. And so he said, “Sure. I’ll go to St. Patrick’s Day.” And so we get there and he has a couple of beers, and then maybe four beers, and he starts to smile a bit.

And then he starts to sing with the band. And then he starts to do the hand motions with the band. And then he starts to have the time of his life. And so I turned to him and I said, “You like the Irish, right?” And he said, “I love the Irish.” And then he said something that really has stuck in my mind forever. He said, “The Irish have taught me that living in a divided country gives us no excuse not to celebrate.” And I remember thinking for a moment that the ritual of celebration, the way that when we celebrate things, we discover our common humanity often.

And those celebrations are both joyful and sometimes sorrowful, whether when someone dies or when someone is experiencing profound happiness. At funerals and weddings there is this kind of coming together; there’s a crossing of divisions. A crossing of divided states.

And in 1992, Palestine and Israel seemed to be one of the last states that was experiencing division. In the late ‘80s, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reuniting. And South Africa was going through a peaceful transmission of power. Nelson Mandela had been let out of prison in 1990, and they had their first elections in the early ‘90s.

And even Ireland itself had the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The world seemed to be getting so much better in the ‘90s. And now it seems like every nation is divided. We are strangers to one another even in our own country. We don’t get one another. We’re no longer curious about one another. And so celebrations now take on some of the power that they did from my friend Hanna. Celebrations give us a chance to cross divided space. Even the most secular ones give us the opportunity to cross divided space.

And all of this goes with the grain of St. Patrick’s Day. You know Patrick was a young Briton living in what we now know as England. He was captured by Celtic raiders. He was brought over to Ireland, and he lived for several years as a slave. He got to be so trusted that he was placed as a shepherd over sheep in Ireland. And just as when people are engaged in incredible constraints – when people are in prison, they develop a spiritual life he developed a spiritual life. And that spiritual life led him to receive from God a message that he could return home. And so he ran away ,which was death defying.

And he went to the edge of Ireland and he found a boat waiting for him. And that boat took him back home. And he went through all of the different things that he went through to become a monk. He went through the training and was planning on staying where he was until he received another message from God, of the people of Ireland calling him back. And so Patrick returned. He crossed divided space.

And he did that by claiming – bringing no sword, no shield, no army, no protection, except the word of God. And a prayer in which he invoked God constantly as he went. And I have a bit of that prayer in your service leaflet that I gave to you as an insert.

Christ be with me. Christ within me. Christ behind me. Christ before me. Christ beside me. Christ to win me. Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me.

Christ in quiet. Christ in danger. Christ in hearts of all that love me. Christ in mouth of friend, in stranger.

Patrick surrounded himself with Christ. He placed himself at the center of the cross of Christ so that he could fear nothing that came above him, or nothing below, or nothing from the front, or nothing from the back. And with that he walked defenseless into Ireland. And the whole nation was transformed by his ability to peacefully cross divided space.

There is a saying in Ireland – it’s a ritual saying. And it’s called risking a hand. And risking a hand comes from – the truth of it is embedded – the history of it is embedded and all but forgotten. But what used to happen in Ireland is that instead of walls, the castles would be protected by hedges. And these hedges were dense and thick, and you couldn’t get through them without separating, and that was how people defended themselves. And what would happen when two warring tribes would want to somehow – or clans would want to somehow come together and reconcile, is that each side would burrow a little hole through the hedge.

And one fearless soul would reach his hand through that little burrow and would hope that the other side would be willing to reach out and touch his hand and not cut it off. And so reconciliation in Ireland was known as being willing to risk a hand – to stick the hand through not knowing whether it would be welcomed, embraced, or rejected and cut-off.

And I like to think that that is one of the ways in which Patrick has made an impact on Ireland-a kind of way that Christianity has embedded that culture. Because you see, one of the ways to explain the incredible work of Jesus Christ is to say that Jesus is God risking His hand for us. God is reaching through the burrow between the hedges and is hoping that we would receive Him as He is extending Himself in complete vulnerability. In fact, what is powerful about Christianity is that we celebrate the fact that not only is God reaching His hand through, but God has given Himself fully to us through Jesus.

And this is the clear message of all of our readings for today. In our reading from Jeremiah there is a promise that the people of God would know God, that God would not simply speak to them through the law, which is itself a kind of fence Jesus says. But would actually speak to us personally so that we would know God in our hearts. And in our reading from Hebrews ,there is that wonderful moment in which we are reminded that the figure of Christ is not a priest who is above the fray and untouched and unharmed, but we have been given a priest who has suffered in every way as we have, so that God in Christ might transform human nature from within.

And finally in our gospel of John, we find some Greeks who want to meet Jesus. They want to see Jesus. And what Jesus tells them is they will see Him in the seeds that are sown, the seeds that die so that they may be reborn as plants. They’ll see Him when He is lifted up on the cross. We don’t truly see him until we see His sacrifice on the cross. Because in that moment in which Jesus dies for us, we see God as God truly is. God’s suffering love, God’s willingness to risk a hand.

I learned of this prayer of St. Patrick not by studying about Patrick, and not by celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, but when I was 19 years old. And I decided that I wanted to join the Episcopal church. None of us were Episcopalians in my family, and so I went by myself to the local Episcopal church nearby and I tried to fit in. And it was a church like every other church, and so I knew that I had to do something to let people know that I was trying to connect.

And so I at this Shrove Tuesday dinner, I washed the dishes. And this woman in her 50s, immaculately dressed, sidled up to me while I was washing the dishes and she reached out and she giggled and she just touched the back of my head really softly, like this, as I was going and she would stop when I turned. She would pull her hand away, and then she’d put her hand back and touch my head. And I was terrified. And then the woman’s mother came, and she got between us and she turned to me and she said, “My daughter has special needs, but she has exquisite taste in men, so you’ll have to excuse her, and I’ve got her now.”

And so she led her daughter away and her daughter would say something like, “Oh, Mom. You ruin all my fun.” And I felt really special until the next time I was in church and I noticed that she had glommed onto another man. And I realized that the mother had basically put me at ease in her own way. I wonder how many times she had gone through that ritual with her daughter – that moment in which she covered for her and cared for her, all at once preserved her dignity.

And a few months after that experience when I had been embraced by that church, they asked me and the mother to speak about Christianity. And my presentation was full of grand ideas. And hers was quite simple. She said, “After I had my daughter, I found I could do nothing without Christ.” And that was when she turned and shared this prayer with the crowd and with me. And I believe she celebrated St. Patrick’s Day faithfully.

How are you crossing divided space? In what ways has God reached out to you and risked a hand? In what ways might you risk a hand to others and go with the grain of God’s goodness in this world? How can you see Jesus? Amen.

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