St. Patrick died just over fifteen hundred years ago today. Born in Britain, as a young man he was captured by raiders and first arrived in Ireland as a slave (for the druid priest in Slemish). After six years a dream inspired him to escape and he went home. Later he returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary and a bishop. The Celtic style of Christianity matters here and you can see him in the nave stained glass window closest to the north transept.
Patrick carried a staff of ash wood and preached wherever he went. He would drive the stick in the ground upright and just start talking. At Aspatria he preached for such a long time that when he finished, he couldn’t pull the stick out of the ground. It had sprouted roots and grew there.
For me the miracle was not that he could talk that long but that anyone would stay around to listen. There is no preaching without a congregation and I’ve been worried that talking about the news this week might make you want to get up and leave. So many horrible things happened that we just want to forget.
The people of the United Kingdom failed to agree about leaving the European Union. The president’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud and conspiracy against the United States (in his work representing pro-Russian foreign interests). He received a mild sentence totaling seven and a half years.
A family from my daughter’s high school paid a consultant who photo-shopped a picture of their child’s face onto an athlete’s body in order to get her accepted at the University of Southern California. The long-term former soccer coach at my son’s college received bribes so that he would fraudulently admit students.
By far the worst of all was Friday when 50 people were shot to death and more than 40 others were wounded at two mosques in Christchurch New Zealand. Our brothers and sisters were worshipping God when a white supremacist rushed in and killed them. In human history we have never experienced a tragedy quite like this. The shooter filmed and broadcast this murder in real time to get attention on the social media that had done so much to inflame his hatred.
People ask Jesus why tragedies like this happen. In the beginning of Luke’s thirteenth chapter Jesus is on the road to the Temple in Jerusalem. The people refer to a strikingly similar incident in which Pilate murdered visitors from Galilee while they were worshiping in the Temple.
Perhaps the crowds want to know if this was a sign from God, perhaps they wondered if it signaled a future divine retribution. Jesus answers that we should never use the suffering of others for our own purposes. We should not ask if they deserved it or if constitutes some kind of message (as if God were merely using other people’s lives to get our attention). Instead we should take all suffering as a reminder to repent, to make ourselves right with God.
Jesus goes on with another example. He says that the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people. “Do you think that they were the worst offenders in Jerusalem? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish just as they did” (Lk. 13). Every natural disaster or illness or act of violence should inspire us with greater reverence for all life. These horrifying events should remind us how precious our existence is. They should always motivate us to deeper love for others and God.
Jesus continues his journey toward the Temple and the story goes on. The Pharisees, the most faithful people in his society, warn him to get away. They say that Herod wants to kill him. But Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem and nothing will deter him. He says, “tell that fox… I am casting out demons and performing cures.”
Then in a moment of deep emotional power he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” The city, that place of unique human culture and violence, elicits Jesus’ profound affection. It draws him not just to his death, but to his resurrection.
Human beings and cities evolved together. At some point in history agriculture made it possible for a few people in society to work at something other than gathering food. From the very beginning in Mesopotamia and Egypt, in Asia and the New World, cities were defined by the concentration of wealth. This made possible the flourishing of human culture. The cities were the home of the market, the garrison and the temple, of kings, generals and priests. The history of the city is the history of the lordship of one human being over others. It is the story of power and inequality.
The oldest city excavation in Palestine is at the biblical city of Jericho (Tell es-Sultan). It was founded between 10,000 and 9000 years ago, more than six thousand years before the first books of the Bible were written. Archaeologists discovered that the defensive walls were built before the people there had been introduced to pottery. It almost makes one ashamed to be human. We learned to build walls to protect our wealth before we learned to make bowls and jars to preserve it.
One could read the Bible as the story of the city. From the beginning God seems opposed to the concentration of human power and the oppression to which this leads. God confuses human languages at Babel and washes away the cities of the earth in the time of Noah. God destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Our faith all started with a rich nomadic herdsman named Abram. In the hill country of Cana, God asked him to “look toward heaven and count the stars… So shall your descendants be” (Gen. 15). From that point on, the people of God suffered at the hands of the centralized power represented by the city, but they also undermined that force.
At a primal level, there almost seems to be a choice that we have to make between our freedom, and access to the wealth of the city. Joseph and his brothers had to decide. They went down to the Pharaoh’s city in Egypt to avoid starvation and their children lost their freedom. When the Hebrews escaped Egypt and gained their liberty in the desert, they constantly complained because they missed Egypt’s wealth.
Jerusalem became a political and religious center. Throughout the monarchy the authors of the Bible write mostly about two experiences of this city. They point out first, the injustices committed by the powerful against their own people. Second, they describe the impending threat of Ninevah and Babylon, the human cities and powers that were even greater than those in the Holy Land. (To put this into perspective, Ninevah was a city of 1,720 acres. Jersualem covered only 33 acres). The prophets speaking on God’s behalf are slaughtered in the very city that they seek to warn. To make matters worse, the prophets end up being right. When the Hebrew people put their trust in the city instead of God, invaders from larger cities over-run it.
Today’s Gospel continues this story of the city. Jesus is a rural Galilean on the road to a place where human inequality thrives – Jerusalem. In the city, people have the strongest beliefs in the stories that justify political, economic and religious inequity. Jesus goes to reveal the truth – that God loves every person without exception.
Over the passage of centuries the dynamics of human social life have not changed so much. When we stop looking for ways to condemn others, this week’s news becomes especially horrifying because we recognize our darker self in these stories. Our false philosophy of scarcity and our habit of regarding a person’s identity as more important than her humanity cause real harm.
The Manafort sentencing reminds us how far we have to go to achieve equal justice. The Brexit debates show our desire to tighten the circle of our concern, to ignore the stranger and care for only those who are close to us. The college cheating scandal exposes another effect of living in an ungenerous and increasingly unequal society (exacerbated by tax, education and healthcare policies that shrink the middle class). Our anxiety about falling into poverty makes us more likely to always put ourselves first and to cheat.
None of us would consider murdering another person online. And yet we hold onto racism, prejudice and judgment in our hearts. We are part of the bigotry we see around us. It is a rare person these days who has not in some way bent or stretched the truth on the internet, who has not manipulated reality for their own purposes.
Two nights ago I dreamed that I was preaching in a massive ornate English Cathedral. At first I kept worrying that I didn’t have a stole. Then they asked me to split my sermon up and to preach multiple times in the service. Then I lost my notes… Finally someone pointed out that I was sitting in the queen’s chair. I don’t know why I was so afraid of getting this wrong. Perhaps it is especially difficult to talk about inequality and bigotry because I have personally benefited from these forces.
When Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem what he is really doing is going into the heart of danger, into the place where human beings are at their worst. He moves without relenting into the pain and the darkness. He refuses to use any person’s suffering for his own purposes. He brings the light of resurrection. He gathers fragile little chicks like you and me under his wings so that we can live without fear. May this good gardener plant us like St. Patrick’s staff so that we might flourish with new life.
 Michael D. Lampen, Grace Cathedral Source Book (San Francisco: Grace Cathedral, 2019).
 Matt and Liz Boulton, “A Brief Theology of St. Patrick’s Day, SALT 12 March 2019. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/12/a-brief-theology-of-st-patricks-day
 These five paragraphs about the city come from 2 Lent (3-7-04) C.
 Harper Bible Commentary, “Cities,” 171.
 The Bible depicts the time of the Judges as a golden age. The Judges are not kings. They do not hold court in a capitol city. But the people beg God to give them a king so that they can be like other nations. When they ask for a human ruler, God fully understands what this means. He tells Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Samuel tells them that having a king means losing your sons to the king’s army, losing your daughters to the king’s service. “He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers “(1 Sam. 8).
 Harper Bible Commentary, “Cities,” 171.