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Sermon: Sunday, March 17, 2024 – John 12: 20-33. Lent V, St Patrick’s Day

by Rev Greg Wooley

As I was searching for resources for this Sunday, when the season of Lent and the Feast of St Patrick intersect, I was blessed

Blessed, because I got to spend a lot of time with the wonderful Irish tradition of prayers and blessings.  Some were more traditional – like our opening hymn, a paraphrase of the 5th century writing known as St Patrick’s Breastplate – and some came from more contemporary communities of Celtic Christianity and Celtic Spirituality.

Some of the prayers and blessings, however, come with the inherent humour of the Irish, like this personal favourite: “May those who love us, love us. And those who don't, may God turn their hearts.  And if God doesn't turn their hearts, may God turn their ankles, so we'll know them by their limping”

In addition to that cheeky humour I also found in these Irish prayers and blessings the abundant gift of lyrical language.  That may partly relate to the shaping of the Irish language itself – or “Gaeilge” (pronounced Gwal-gah), which is the Irish word for the Irish language – but it also relates to sentences inverted in such a way that I cannot help but stop and notice.  Example after example were furnished by the late John O’Donohue, including this morning prayer:

MATINS:  I arise today – in the name of silence, womb of the word; in the name of stillness, home of belonging; in the name of solitude, of the soul and the earth. I arise today – blessed by all things: wings of breath, delight of eyes, wonder of whisper, intimacy of touch, eternity of soul, urgency of thought, miracle of health, embrace of God.

May I live this day – compassionate of heart, clear in word, gracious in awareness, courageous in thought, generous in love.

And I must mention the prayers of the Corrymeela community, an ecumenical community founded in 1965 with the hopes of building a more peaceful Northern Ireland.   Their prayers touch my heart in ways that few other words do, partly because of their simple beauty, but also because these prayers began as seeds sown in faith amidst the Troubles of that land, words and people that trust the power of the God of peace.  Every day, their Facebook page features a prayer based on scripture, and I share this one from March 7th, based on Philippians 2:3, ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.’ 

God of those in rivalry with us, God of a humility at work within us: may we start with the assumption that we have more to learn than to teach; more to hear than to explain; more to admire than to judge.  And then may we find a stronger companion, in the mutual respect that overpowers our conceit. Amen.


Earlier this morning I said a few brief words about the Celtic Christian tradition, which in many ways forms the larger container for all these prayers.   The Celtic Centre writes: “Because the Celtic people of Northwestern Europe were a bit out of the reach of the Roman Empire and the Roman Church, they were [able] to maintain their ancient and time-honored practices…. As Christianity arrived to these cultures and communities, they were able, for many centuries, to find a beautiful synthesis of these ancient practices and beliefs with the Christian understanding of God’s message of Divine presence and eternal belonging for everyone….  The early Christian Celts were able to see the beautiful presence of the Divine in a relationship with Nature that stressed humility, dignity of all things, and God’s presence in and through all of Creation.   They maintained rich spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, communing with Nature, care for those in need, hospitality, and poetic use of the imagination and art. They saw, in all experiences, the presence of the Spirit, and were very skilled at seeking encounter with God in all of life. The Celts believed men and women are equally able to inspire, lead, and participate in all aspects of community and spiritual practice. And they had a wonderful tradition of cultivating soul-friends who took caring responsibility for assisting in the development of and sustained journey of a spiritual life well lived”.   

Which brings us, of course, to this morning’s gospel.  In describing the ministry of Jesus, it is as though the author of the gospel of John is writing a screenplay, interweaving parts of storyline from earlier scenes.  So we have in this morning’s reading, as we heard three weeks ago, the words prefiguring the crucifixion and the call to deny self and take up one’s cross, including the unfortunate wording of “hating one’s self” which is in reality a denunciation of ego and a call to non-attachment of the things of this world, not self-loathing.   We have echoes of the refrain, “come and see” which was within the call stories of Christ’s first disciples.  And we have this very visual image, of a wheat seed germinating, dying to its old self in order for a flourishing of growth, and the resulting abundance of grain.  While clearly set in the language of the new realm, the Kin-dom of God, it is also a glimpse into the pattern of death and resurrection which is so central to our connection with Jesus Christ.

Here, the Celtic tradition helps us to, as the Celtic Centre stated, “see the beautiful presence of the Divine in a relationship with Nature that stresses humility, dignity of all things, and God’s presence in and through all of Creation.”  In the seed going into the ground, we have not only a metaphor for death and resurrection, but something that is both common and amazing.  As the season of spring approaches (three days from today!) and I think of the actual process of seed plus water plus soil plus sunshine, breaking open in a predictable manner and generation after generation, millennium after millennium, producing a crop that nourishes our bodies and produces seed for the whole cycle to start over again – it just takes my breath away.  How is it that life works this way?  What Creative, Sacred urge gives such a gift?

Death and resurrection have a harder, more human form, in the last week of Jesus’ life – which we will explore next Sunday, as Palm Sunday opens us to Holy Week and then Holy Week opens us to Easter.  And if we enter that space of the disciples surrounding Jesus in the 12th chapter of John, we understand why they would want Jesus to stop talking this way about the suffering and death that he AND THEY will suffer… and yet as those on THIS side of Easter, the entire shape and meaning of life is changed by that assurance of evils defeated, injustices overturned, hatred put to flight, and new life without end.

And this example of a seed dying in order for new life to emerge, will describe some of the things that you, and I, will be experiencing in the coming weeks and months. There are things that we have done together that will come to an end, either by choice or by circumstance.  There will be things you need to let go of in order to make room for other things to grow.   As I move into whatever comes next for me, I will be letting go of things that were uniquely part of these twelve years, and some of that is already hard to do.  And as we experienced in such startling fashion on Friday [when there was a kitchen fire in our Banff Church, leading to the closure of our Thrift Shop for the foreseeable future] there are aspects of the Church building in Banff that will permanently change, and community outreach that will for a while come to a full stop.  There will be new possibilities of our ministry in Banff, as creative thought accompanies the cleanup, as resurrection accompanies the rebuild.

But there is also, my friends, the promise of resurrection, of flourishing, of new days dawning.  There will be seeds sown that produce little but there will be others that come to life, flourishing as they have not before, as God has new things in store for this community of faith and its surrounding communities.  Our lives are full of dyings and risings:  fall and winter, times of rest and re-set, and the sprouting and flourishing of spring and summer.  We naturally like the flourishing a lot more than the rest of it, but change and renewal are integral parts of our human lives.  As we open ourselves to the calling of Christ, who is well aware of what our hearts need, we let go of that which is dead or no longer of service, and trust in that holy rhythm of seedtime and harvest, dying and rising.

And with that, the final word in today’s sermon comes from John O’Donohue and his beautiful prayer of blessing, entitled,  “A Morning Offering:”

All that is eternal in me welcomes the wonder of this day, the field of brightness it creates, offering time for each thing to arise and illuminate.

I place on the altar of dawn: the quiet loyalty of breath, the tent of thought where I shelter, waves of desire I am shore to, and all beauty drawn to the eye.

May my mind come alive today to the invisible geography that invites me to new frontiers, to break the dead shell of yesterdays, to risk being disturbed and changed.

May I have the courage today to live the life that I would love, to postpone my dream no longer, but do at last what I came here for and waste my heart of fear no more”.

Thank God, for the world of beauty, for the promise of holy renewal, and for the new life we know in Christ Jesus.   Amen.  


References consulted or cited:

O’Donohue, John. Anam Cara. San Francisco: Harper, 1998 and To Bless the space between us.  NYC: Doubleday, 2008.

Van Der Weyer, Robert.  Celtic Prayers.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1997.

© 2024 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.

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