This was a Lenten sermon I preached two or three years ago. St. Patrick is a big part of the sermon, so I thought it would be good to post it today.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!
“Loss and Restoration”
A fleet of 50 longboats weaved its way toward the shore, where a young Roman Brit and his family walked. His name was Patrick, the 16-year-old son of a civil magistrate and tax collector. He had heard stories of Irish raiders who captured slaves and took them “to the ends of the world,” and as he studied the longboats, he no doubt began imagining the worst.
With no Roman army to protect them (Roman legions had long since deserted Britain to protect Rome from barbarian invasions), Patrick and his town were unprepared for attack. The Irish warriors, wearing helmets and armed with spears, descended on the pebbled beach. The braying war horns struck terror into Patrick’s heart, and he started to run toward town.
The warriors quickly demolished the village, and as Patrick darted among burning houses and screaming women, he was caught. The barbarians dragged him aboard a boat bound for the east coast of Ireland.
Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents’ heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master’s pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Worst of all, he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time. Far from home, he clung to the religion he had ignored as a teenager. Even though his grandfather had been a priest, and his father a town councilor, Patrick “knew not the true God.” But forced to tend his master’s sheep in Ireland, he spent his bondage mainly in prayer.
After six years of slavery Patrick escaped to the European continent. Many scholars believe Patrick then spent a period training for ministry on an island off the south of France. But his autobiographical Confession includes a huge gap after his escape from Ireland. When it picks up again “after a few years,” he is back in Britain with his family. It was there that Patrick received his call to evangelize Irelandâ€”a vision like the apostle Paul’s at Troas, when a Macedonian man pleaded, “Help us!”
“I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland,” Patrick wrote. “His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut â€¦and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”
Despite his reputation, Patrick wasn’t really the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. Pope Celestine I sent a bishop named Palladius to the island in 431 (about the time Patrick was captured as a slave). Some scholars believe that Palladius and Patrick are one and the same individual, but most believe Palladius was unsuccessful (possibly martyred), and Patrick was sent in his place. In any event, paganism was still dominant when Patrick arrived on the other side of the Irish Sea. “I dwell among gentiles,” he wrote, “in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things.”
Patrick was in his mid-40s when he returned to Ireland. Palladius had not been very successful in his mission, and the returning former slave replaced him. Intimately familiar with the Irish clan system (his former master, Milchu, had been a chieftain), Patrick’s strategy was to convert chiefs or kings first, who would then convert their clans through their influence. Reportedly, Milchu was one of his earliest converts.
Predictably, Patrick faced the most opposition from the druids, who practiced magic, were skilled in secular learning (especially law and history) and advised Irish kings. Biographies of the saint are replete with stories of druids who “wished to kill holy Patrick.” “Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity,” Patrick wrote, “but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.”
Indeed, Patrick almost delighted in taking risks for the gospel. “I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God’s name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children.”
Patrick continued to concentrate the bulk of his missionary efforts on the country’s one hundred or so tribal kings. As kings converted, they gave their sons to Patrick in an old Irish custom for educating and “fostering” (Patrick, for his part, held up his end by distributing gifts to these kings). Eventually, the sons and daughters of the Irish were persuaded to become priests, monks, and nuns.
From kingdom to kingdom (Ireland did not yet have towns), Patrick worked much the same way. Once he converted a number of pagans, he built a church. One of his new disciples would be ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop, and left in charge. If the chieftain had been gracious enough to grant a site for a monastery as well as a church, it was built too and functioned as a missionary station.
Though he was not solely responsible for converting the island, Patrick was quite successful. He made missionary journeys all over Ireland, and it soon became known as one of Europe’s Christian centers.
Patrick was not the first or the last to be taken to a place he did not want to go. Neither was he the first to go to a place he might not be well received. In our passage today we are going to meet two womenâ€”one women was taken to a foreign country by her husband during famine. The other woman chose to leave her country for one where she might not ever be accepted. Ruth and Naomi both knew what it was like to live in a foreign land. They also knew what is like to lose or leave behind everything one has known.
This story starts in perilous timesâ€”â€œIn the days when the judges ruled.â€ Like England and Ireland in Patrickâ€™s day was dangerous, so was Israel of Ruth and Naomiâ€™s day. In fact Judges has just ended with a cycle of stories that has graphically shown how far Israel had gone in their disobedience, rebellion, and adultery. Judges has just ended with a story of horrible abuse, murder, the tribes of Israel nearly wiping out the tribe of Benjamin, then the final acts of kidnapping and forced marriage. The narrator of Judges final evaluation of the entire book in 21:25 is â€œIn those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.â€ â€œIn those day when the judges ruled.â€ In those days this story takes place.
The story starts off with the information that there is a famine in Israel, so a man, Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons went to Moab where the famine did not reach. Then Elimelech died. Naomi was a widow, but she still had her two sons; she was still a mother. Her sons married then there was hope for grandchildren. But after ten years of marriage there were no children, and then the sons died. For all intents and purposes Naomi lost everything that gave her identity in her worldâ€”she was no longer a wife or mother, and she had no grandchildren. Like Patrick she had been taken to a foreign land and lost everything she held dear: her family. Just as Patrick, being a slave in Ireland became essentially a non-person, so did Naomi. She had no one to provide for her, protect her, or care for her in old age.
In verse 6 we find that Naomi has discovered that the â€œLORD had considered his people and given them food.â€ She decides to return to her homeland, and her daughters-in-law go with her. Before they get far into the journey, Naomi tells them to return to their own mothersâ€™ homes. There is no reason for them to go with her: she cannot give them the secure future they will need. She is old. Even if she were married and could have more children immediately, it would be years before they could marry Ruth and Orpah and provide homes for them. Naomi does not want her daughters in law to suffer the same fate she has.
Orpah obeys her mother-in-law and returns to her own motherâ€™s house. But Ruth stays. Ruth makes the same decision that Patrick made when he decided to return to Ireland to preach the good news–she decides to leave everything she has known and follow Naomi back to her homeland. Ruth will not abandon Naomi: she will go with Naomi. Naomiâ€™s people will become Ruthâ€™s people and Naomiâ€™s God will take the place of Ruthâ€™s gods. Ruth will leave her home, her religion, and her land to insure that Naomi is taken care of and provided for. Later in Ruth her actions toward Naomi will be called â€œloyalty.â€ Loyalty translates the Hebrew word chesedâ€”the word that is used to describe the covenant love and loyalty between God and God’s people. This Gentile woman, a Moabite, will be commended for showing covenant love toward Naomi, an Israelite.
Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem where Naomi describes what has happened to her life in verses 20-21. She left as a wife and motherâ€”she left as a person who had security and stability. She now returns a widow and childless, which in her society means no identity as a person. Like many of us do when we suffer loss and hard times in life Naomi blames God. But through the rest of the book God is going to be working through Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi herself to restore what Naomi has lost and to create a home for Ruth who left hers.
Like Naomi, Ruth, and Patrick all of us go through times of loss and times when we must leave parts of our lives behind. Sometimes the losses are huge, like Naomiâ€™sâ€”husband, children, and home. Sometimes the losses are jobs, health, or friends. Sometimes our losses arenâ€™t big, but they are significant to us. Then there are times like Ruth when we will leave behind parts of our lives. All of us know missionaries who have literally left everything they have known to follow Godâ€™s call on their lives. I have also known people who have left very well-paying jobs because they could not do their job and keep their Christian ethics. And just as there are little things we lose, there are also little things we leave. They may not look like much to anyone else, but to us they were a significant part of our lives.
Weâ€™re in the season of Lent. Itâ€™s the time the church traditionally dwells on the themes of loss and leaving behind the world. There are those who do give up something for Lent. But whether we do that or not, we are all called upon to look at our lives in the light of the grace that God has given us. Because we have received a salvation we could not earn and did not deserve, we look at how our lives reflect what God has done in our lives. Are we living in the joy of our salvation? Are we obeying God? Are we doing everything we can to make room in our lives for God? Are we sharing God’s love with others? And as we reflect on our lives in the light of this grace, we may be called on to lose something dear to us. We might be called to leave behind something we thought we could never live without.
But as we live in times of loss and leaving parts of our life behind, we need to remember that Ruth does not end with the return to Bethlehem and all that Naomi has lost, and all that Ruth has left behind. Ruth goes to the fields to gather grain for Naomi and herself. The town notices and talks about this Gentile womanâ€™s loyalty to an Israelite widow and her hard work to provide food for her. When called upon to take care of his family, Boaz goes above and beyond the law and duty to marry Ruth and provide a home for both Ruth and Naomi. And Ruth ends with the joyous celebration over the birth of her and Boazâ€™s first son. Naomiâ€™s loss is restored, and what Ruth has left behind has been replaced. God has provided.
As we go through Lent our losses and what we leave behind is not the end of the story. Because the ending of Lent is not Good Fridayâ€”itâ€™s Sundayâ€”the day of the resurrection. Good Friday reminds us that there is no resurrection apart from death, but Good Friday is not the end of our story. There is resurrection and restoration. Because of that hope when God calls us to leave we can go; when we have losses, we can look forward toward restoration. As Ruth, Naomi, and Patrick found out: God can bring incredible redemption out of loss and leaving. God used Patrick to bring the gospel to a whole land and save it. Ruth and Naomi would go on, to not only be great grandmothers of Israelâ€™s greatest king–but Ruth would be a great grandmother to the very Messiah who came to restore all of us to God.