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Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 17, 2024

Updated: Mar 23

I am going to start by breaking a rule. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! This is a holy day that I never miss. You would not miss it either if you, like me, attended St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Washington, DC, for your elementary school education. Imagine the horror experienced by a young child as he arrives at the start of school to see all the green worn by his classmates and the older and younger students, only to look down and see not a snip of green on himself. Children have their own rules, and they enforce them ruthlessly. After a long day suffering the pinches from every human 12 years or younger, this absent-minded student learns to mark March 17th on the calendar.

It is said that on St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish. That was certainly true for us at my beloved school. You could not excuse yourself from the green clothing rule. Lame attempts to claim green underwear spared you nothing. How much more fun it was to obey the rule than to ignore or challenge it.

My own interest in Ireland came from more than just my time at a school named after its patron saint. In our years in Washington, my parents kept an extensive vinyl record collection. They freely and kindly allowed me to play their records. My parents were not rock ‘n rollers. An album entitled The Greatest Hits of 1812 was one of their favorite albums. But they had a great collection of foreign and folk music in addition to classical music. I explored those albums, and there discovered the Clancy Brothers.

The Clancy Brothers—Paddy, Tom, and Liam—along with their friend Tommy Makem, all Irishmen, got me hooked on Irish music. In the early 1960’s, they were featured on the Ed Sullivan show, played on television for President John F. Kennedy, and performed at Carnegie Hall. While much of their music was folk music from other places or were songs of the sea, their music at its core was the sound of Ireland.

Irish music can be wildly happy, funny, or sad. Much of it, especially the sad, revolves around Irish freedom from British rule. Songs of Irish nationalism stress loyalty and sacrifice. Perhaps most poignant were songs like Kevin Barry, which describes the infamous execution of an eighteen-year old IRA man. In the song, the night before he died, Kevin Barry refused an offer to save his life by turning traitor. 

These songs had a profound effect on their listeners, joining them as a community, binding them to the cause, giving them an identity to which they could cling in the worst of times. In his autobiography, Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt described his growing up in Ireland. Frank’s father was deeply flawed, a man who loved his family but struggled with how to show that love, a man who would drink his wages on payday before arriving home penniless. 

When Frank and his brother Malachy were still young boys, without warning, their seven-week old sister died silently in the night. Already overwhelmed with four other children, the parents broke down. Frank’s mother, Angela, confined herself to bed, leaving the boys Frank and Malachy to feed and change the diapers of their baby siblings as best as they could. As soon as the doctor left their house, Frank’s father told his son that he was going out for cigarettes. Frank wrote,

Two days later Dad returns from his cigarette hunt. It’s the middle of the night but he gets Malachy and me out of the bed. He has the smell of the drink on him. He has us stand at attention in the kitchen. We are soldiers. He tells us we must promise to die for Ireland.

We will, Dad, we will.

All together we sing Kevin Barry. 

Although scolded by a neighbor for the noise (“You can teach them to die for Ireland in the daytime….”), alcohol and love of country are how Frank’s father dealt with the soul-destroying loss of his baby girl. Before letting the boys go back to bed, he asked them,

You’ll die for Ireland, won’t you boys?

We will, Dad, we will.

And we’ll all meet your little sister in heaven, won’t we boys?

We will, Dad, we will.

Vows to die for one’s country, songs of nationalism, St. Patrick’s Day parades, pinching at school for failing to wear the correct color on the right day, they all build and reinforce community. They create a common identity. Other members of that community—parents, neighbors, classmates, and strangers—strengthen this identity, strengthen obedience to the community. 

A common theme of our collect and our readings today is obedience. In today’s collect, we acknowledge that God is both almighty and the only one who can bring order, as we inevitably fail. We ask God to give us grace, grace to obey cheerfully and willingly. We ask that, with all the upheaval and chaos of this world, God fix our hearts not on what passes away but rather on where “true joys are to be found.”

It is a prayer for the gift of discipline, for obedience. But we are naturally suspicious of being obedient. To what are we asking to be obedient?

The reading from Jeremiah comes during the Babylonian exile, a time when the people of Judah could have disappeared into history as other peoples had. The exiles saw their fate as a punishment from God for their unfaithfulness, a justified consequence of their repeated violations of the covenant God established with their ancestors. 

In this bleak time comes the announcement of a new covenant of God with the houses of Israel and Judah, a covenant to replace the one those peoples had broken again and again. To those in exile, God declares, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” This covenant is different from the old covenant because of God’s grace. His people will no longer need to study to know the Lord. The Lord will make the law a part of them, writing it on their hearts. That writing on their hearts will enable them to keep the requirements of the new covenant: to obey and honor God, to live as God’s people, and to acknowledge God as the source of all that sustains them. Rather than punishing the people for their inevitable failures to keep their covenant with God, God will forgive their sins and remember those sins no more. It is a great hope in the midst of despair, a promise of new life for the future.

In the Gospel of John, we see the extension of that covenant to non-Jews. After Jesus’ triumphal entrance in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Greeks ask the disciple Philip if they may see Jesus. Philip tells Andrew. Philip and Andrew are among the very first Jews whom Jesus made his disciples. They, appropriately, bring these first of Gentile followers to Jesus. Jesus addresses the Greeks, telling them through a parable how his death is necessary for his followers to bear much fruit, that is, to carry out its mission of proclaiming the salvation that comes through Jesus. To come to Jesus requires the believer to come through Jesus’ death.

In the same manner, to gain life, disciples of Jesus must lose their lives. In other words, to gain the gifts of Jesus’ life, believers must give up the life of the world for the life of the community created by Jesus’s life. We either declare allegiance to Jesus or we follow the ways of the world. Saint Peter offers us an example of both choices: at one time vowing to die with Jesus, at another denying knowing Jesus to protect himself. 

What is life like if we choose to follow Jesus? Will God have our backs and keep us safe? If we pick that community, will we be spared pain? 

No. The Letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that, while divine, Jesus was also one of us. He cried out loud. He wept. He humbly prayed to the Father, but he still suffered. In our lowest moments, when facing the deaths of ourselves or our loved ones, we cry out to God, just like Jesus did. But like Jesus, we can learn obedience to God in our suffering. We can learn what matters. We can learn to love what God commands and to desire what God promises. Especially when death or disaster threaten or strike, we see it is the love and care of those around us that are important, not the shiny objects and praise the world celebrates. After the material and the irrelevant are stripped away, we see where to find the true joys. Life in the community of followers of Jesus teaches these truths, revealing them in the good times, not just in times of crisis. 

Being a member of this community, however, puts responsibilities on us. It is a community whose purpose is to help others, especially those outside the community, especially those the world would deem least deserving. As God shows  grace to us who don’t deserve it, we are called to show that grace to those like Frank McCourt’s father, a man who deserted his family in the hour of its greatest need, a man whom the world would despise without trying to understand him. We are called to listen, to hear those stories of others. We are called to reflect God’s love to them. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. Sometimes, we can do more.  

I began this sermon breaking a rule. I will end it by putting away my green stole. I will choose obedience—and I am wearing green socks just in case. 

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