March 17, 2019

2019 March17

St. Patrick's Day

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Karen Siegfriedt


 “The fungus arrived in Ireland in the late summer of 1845. Pest, parasite, potato destroyer, invisible and invincible, it struck across Europe, the same sudden unstoppable invasion everywhere. Infection, corruption, devastation. But Ireland was a special case. Ireland was a place where for millions of people, the potato was neither staple nor supplement, but sustenance. Life. Women in the fields, amid the blasted, ruined crops, covered their heads, cried, keened, mingled anguish with their pleas, beseeching God, the government, and the Landlords. In theory, Ireland was an integral part of Great Britain and its subject were as precious to the Crown as the souls in English shires, but in reality, they were not.”  Kyrie-Eleison  (Introduction to Famine Remembrance)  

At first, measures were taken to address the famine in Ireland such as American corn, Public Works, Soup kitchens. But those in power soon grew weary and said: “Let nature take its course, we cannot interfere.” They blamed the poor for their own misery, claiming that the Irish were not ambitious enough, had too many children, and were too wild for their own good. For centuries, British laws had deprived Ireland’s Catholics of their rights to worship, vote, speak their language and own land, horses and guns. Now, with a famine raging, the Irish were denied food. Under armed guard, food convoys continued to export wheat, oats and barley to England while Ireland starved. Kyrie-Eleison.

Barefooted mothers with clothes hanging from their bodies clutched dead infants in their arms as they begged for food, often eating grass to fill their bellies. Wild dogs searching for food, fed on human remains. At least one million people died, some from hunger while others from fever, diarrhea, and exhaustion. Everyone who could begged and borrowed money, escaping to Liverpool or to places like the United States in cramped, disease-ridden coffin ships crossing the ocean. Two million people (a quarter of the Irish population) left their homeland in the span of two years. Kyrie-Eleison.

Today is the feast day of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland. Many of us celebrate this special day with the eating of corn beef and cabbage, drinking a pint of Guinness, or the wearing of green. In Irish enclaves, there are big parades and Irish Dancing competitions. These festivities are visible signs of Irish Pride that delight both the stomach and the heart. But beyond these celebrations, Christians are being called to remember the tremendous sacrifice and good works of Patrick himself and to follow in his path of compassion and relational courage.

St. Patrick was born in Britain in the year 390 AD. Brought up in a Christian household, he was kidnapped at the age of 16 by a band of Irish slave holders. As a victim of human trafficking, he was forced to serve as a shepherd in Ireland, living amongst strangers in a foreign land. When he was 21 years old, he escaped from the Emerald Isle and returned home. Once home, he furthered his education and was later ordained a priest.

Being a holy and devout man, Patrick later received a vision to return to Ireland to spread the gospel. With courage and commitment, he accepted the challenge. He returned to Ireland where he made remarkable progress in missionary conversion after winning over the local kings and their tribes. So how did this former slave make a difference in a land where plagues and famines were frequent and where plundering, cattle raiding, and the slave trade was acceptable?

Words taken from today’s biblical readings and collect aptly describe Patrick’s character. They give us insight into his successful methods and mission:


“Righteousness, justice, courage,
gentle, caring, sharing of the self,
pure, upright, blameless,
laboring, and encouraging.”


As an apostle to the Irish people, it was his mission to bring the good news to those who were wandering in darkness and error and lead them to the true light and knowledge of God. This was the legacy that St. Patrick left the Irish, a legacy of relational courage that all Christians are called to embrace.

When the Irish refugees landed in the United States during the famine of the mid 1800’s, they were hungry, sick, exhausted, and poor.  Instead of healing their wounds, providing sustenance for their well-being, and sharing the good news, much of the American population turned against them. The Irish were particularly vilified by this country’s Anglo-Saxon Protestants whose distaste for the pope was tenacious. They viewed the Irish refugees as not only as poor, unskilled workers huddled in rickety tenements, but even worse, they were Catholic. Kyrie-Eleison.

Like the English landlords across the ocean, they denigrated the new immigrants, stereotyping them as ignorant bogtrotters loyal only to the pope and ill-suited for democracy. Even though these immigrants filled the most menial and dangerous work, some of the American working class accused these cheaper laborers of taking their jobs. Discrimination faced by the famine refugees was blatant in many employment postings: “No Irish Need Apply.” Kyrie-Eleison.

It has been more than 150 years since the Irish refugees were forced into exile by a humanitarian and political disaster. Today, we are experiencing similar challenges along the southern border of our country.

Like the Irish, thousands of
migrants and asylum seekers
from Central America are
looking for a better life for
themselves and their children.


They are escaping poverty, gang violence, corrupt governments, and domestic violence. Many of these children are being forced into gang activity against their will. The police and politicians fail to protect them, colluding instead with criminal groups and drug traffickers. Life is so dangerous in their homelands, that families are taking the journey to our southern border, even at the risk of being assaulted, raped, robbed, or kidnapped. Kyrie-Eleison.

How should we respond? What kind of compassion should we show toward people fleeing from poverty and violence? It seems that our nation is divided on how to react. On one side of the spectrum are those who desire to build a wall to keep the refugees out. On the other side of the spectrum are those who want to have an open border. My hunch is, that the majority of people in our country desire a comprehensive immigration reform bill that works. However, coming together for immigration reform is no easy task and will require relational courage, hard work, skill, and compromise on everyone’s part.

What surprises me the most however about the immigration problem, is the response by two particular groups of people. The first are elected political representatives whose own families are recent immigrants to the United States. Some of these folks seem to have a hardened their hearts against current refugees who are yearning to come to America to be free.

The second group that puzzles me are some of my Irish-Catholic acquaintances from Boston. Some of them are vilifying foreign immigrants in the same way that the Irish Catholics were vilified in the 1800’s. They accuse foreigners of stealing the jobs, endangering Social Security and Medicare, and being a threat to our democracy.

It is amazing how some people
have decided that the greatest
threat to the sovereignty and
safety of our nation are hungry,
dehydrated, exhausted families
with nothing but the clothes they
are wearing.


But mass shootings, insider trading, obscene CEO pay, wage theft from ordinary workers, Wall Street’s corporate payoffs to friendly politicians, and the billionaire takeover of our democracy are less of a concern. Kyrie-Eleison.

So where do we go from here? I think St. Patrick has shown us a way forward. At the age of 41, Patrick returned to the country where he had been a victim of human trafficking. Instead of vilifying the Irish people, he had empathy for them for they were walking in darkness. The love he showed to both the greatest of kings and the lowest of peasants was nothing less than relational courage.

“Real courage is saying ‘yes’ to life instead of backing down when we face adversity. It takes courage to talk about issues that need to be resolved rather than run from them. It takes courage to not blame someone else for our stuff.  It takes courage to recognize and do something about the blind spots we all have.”(Starting Over)


Relational courage requires us to
listen carefully to others who are
different from us and to be
vulnerable and honest in order to
develop meaningful
relationships. Relational courage
compels us to restore
compassionate action to the
center of our religious, moral
and political life. This is the way
St. Patrick preached the gospel
and how he ended up converting
the Irish.

Today is the second Sunday in Lent, a time set aside before Easter when we are called to reflect and repent for our failure to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Last week on Ash Wednesday, we knelt down and corporately asked for forgiveness for “our blindness to human need and suffering, for our indifference to injustice and cruelty, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us.” As we yearn for world peace, a world where the dignity of every human being is respected, a world where acts of terrorism are absent, then this is the kind of work we need to do on a regular basis- not only as individuals but also as a nation united for the common good of all people!


Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,


Sung by the Choir after the sermon:
Cover Photo: Potato Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland (National Geographic)

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