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Mar 19, 2017

Catalyst for Faith

Passage: Matthew 28:16-20

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Saints

Category: Spirituality


Sermon delivered on the patronal feast celebration in 2017


It’s St. Patrick’s Day or the Sunday near St. Patrick’s Day and our annual Feast Day celebration. St. Patrick is one of those saints who is famous enough that the day set aside to remember him is known by both church goers and non-church goers. I don’t know the percentage of people living in the United States who have ancestors from Ireland, but I believe that it is high and St. Patrick is not only the patron saint of that beautiful country, he is also, probably, the most recognizable historical figure from there. St. Patrick’s Day is notorious for its celebrations including the parades (like the one in DC last week) and the largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world in New York City. There are also Irish pubs, green beer, and pretty much anything else green. There is a whole market for green merchandise at the party stores. So, it is easy to celebrate just the spirit of Patrick even now nearly 1600 years after his death.

But as famous as St. Patrick is, we often forget why he gained his stature in Ireland and around the world. It begins by knowing that Patrick was not actually from Ireland. He was born and spent his formative years in Britain until he was captured and sold into slavery at the age of 16. That was how he ended up in Ireland; transported on a slave ship across the sea. Patrick wrote about how awful this part of his life was. He was treated terribly and his many attempts to escape were foiled. He was a slave for 5 years before he successfully got away, ran across the entirety of Ireland and escaped on a ship bound back to his native land hoping to never return to this land of hard labor, shackles, and captivity. A land that kindled only memories of hardship, toil, and incarceration.

This week, at the Alpha course, we heard Bishop Mariann speak about why she has faith. In her talk, she shared the five faith catalysts defined by Andy Stanley, a pastor in Atlanta. These catalysts are things that turn us toward a deeper faith experience. 

  1. Providential Relationships

And then I met…and then she said…out of the blue, he called.

  1. Pivotal Circumstances

When my parents divorced…when I lost my job…when the doctor said…or when I saw her for the first time…when our child was born.

  1. Practical Teaching

“And then a lightbulb went off in my head.” “I never heard anyone explain it like that before.” “I couldn’t put the book down.” “I felt like he was preaching just to me.”

  1. Private Disciplines

“the still small voice” meditation, quiet prayer generosity as a practice, hospitality, forgiveness

  1. Personal Ministry

When you say ‘yes’ to something for someone else that winds up changing you.

When I heard Bishop Mariann’s list, I found myself looking back on my life and remembering the moments that deepened my faith, gave my life meaning and deepened my reliance on God to bind all of us together. Maybe you did that, too. But I also believe that we can see these five catalysts active in the life of our patron.  

Patrick’s time as a slave was a pivotal circumstance. It could have led to a downward spiral, but when he escaped, he decided to dedicate his life to God. He decided to give everything in service to others. He studied theology and over a twenty-year career was ordained a priest and eventually a bishop in Britain. 

By any standard, Patrick could be seen, after those accomplishments, as a success. But then Patrick turned even deeper into his faith. I think it was a mixture of private disciplines: listening to the spirit speaking to him about the events in his life and his willingness to say ‘yes’ to a personal ministry that seemed dangerous, radical, and unexpected.

Patrick reported that he experienced a vision telling him to pack up his bags, leave the life built in Britain after his slavery, to return to Ireland, to the people who once kept him shackled in a work camp. He felt called to share the Good News of Christ with them.

For me, this is the most amazing thing about Patrick. He had enough spiritual energy to cross the waters to a place of his nightmares, forgive his former captors, and share God’s love with them in a radical way. Patrick embarked on this journey in his 40s, immigrating to Ireland of his own free will, and spent the last thirty years of his life sharing with the people he met (rich and poor and of all classes) about the power of faith. He was so successful that he converted the country (many of the people) to follow Jesus and to accept the responsibilities of a Christian life. 

Along the way, people who met him and heard him speak were convinced of something radical, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit change the way humans live. He was, for the people of Ireland, a pivotal relationship that transformed the way they lived their lives. And he did this by describing the faith, his experience of the holy, through examples that made sense to his audience. Like the use of the shamrock to describe the complexities of the trinity. The people who heard him speak as he traveled the country (from the uneducated to the royalty) were moved by his practical teaching.

If Patrick had stayed in Britain he would have been considered a success, but we would never have heard of him. Instead, he chose to say yes, to do something extraordinary, something that challenged his very existence, but in doing so, he found a level of service to God that would not only change him, but would have profound impacts on all who encountered him. And that is why he is known and celebrated around the world today.

St. Patrick’s example inspires us to capitalize on life. To choose to dream big and follow an extraordinary path to make a difference in the lives of all people. That is what a faithful life is all about: wrestling with what life gives us and listening to God’s voice calling us to do transformative things. As we celebrate the life of our saint, let his example inspire us to venture out from this place to pursue challenging and life giving ministries, so that we can bring God’s love into a world that needs it. We give thanks on this day for the life and mission and example of St. Patrick.