March 21

Green Meadows

By Marsh Chapel

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John 12: 20-33

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Now Jesus stands before us at the feast, talking with Greeks as a reminder in John that Jesus came for us, the non-Jews, so that the boundaries of Israel might be expanded, and a branch might be grafted onto the tree of life. Today Jesus stands before us in all his youth. He stands before us as a young man facing certain death. He is a grain of wheat that is cast into the earth and that then brings forth much fruit. His is a life of servant love, given over against so many others who clutch at life, and tragically lose it. Selfishness kills. Generosity saves. Selfishness kills. Generosity saves.

But now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

For John and his church, this meant that the hour has come for faith. The hour has come to see past and see through the physical reality of death to its true significance.

The hour has come to see past and see through the shameful and painful reality of crucifixion to its true significance. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. This fourth gospel trims out of the story of Jesus’ death almost all the harsher detail, all the spitting, all the degradation, all the abject humiliation, all the brutality-they are gone. Peter’s denial and the crown of thorns alone remain. And this is because for John the cross of Jesus Christ is not crucifixion alone, nor departure alone, nor exaltation alone. This hour is first of all the hour of glory.  So, Matthew may end his gospel with a cry: Eli Eli lamasabacthani. Luke may conclude his gospel with a prayer: Father forgive them for they know not what they do. But John ends with a single word-tetelestai-it is finished. What the world sees as defeat is really a triumph and what the world sees as the end of Jesus’ hopes and aspirations is really the beginning of his ascent to glory. (Blessed Ashton). The heart of life is found in love and death, and today we are right at the heart of life. Love and death, these are our existential space and our daily time.  We are told today to find our life by losing it, to drop our grain that fruit we may gain, we are taught again to love our neighbor as if she were our very self.

In these verses, John 12:20-33, there lingers an essence, a fragrance that eludes description. Why did Dostoevsky choose these verses as frontispiece to his greatest novel, Crime and Punishment? John seems to have distilled a potent nectar, more potent than that found elsewhere, from his knowledge of loss. Why are these verses so haunting?

I believe they astound us so, because they reflect a double death. I believe the sense of glory found in the cross here comes from the hard lesson of loss, in a little church, somewhere in Turkey, turned out of the synagogue, and losing or about to lose, long after the death of Jesus, their last link with the primitive church. In the cross, in their loss, they saw both the death of Jesus, and the death of their beloved disciple, their beloved preacher, their pastor, John. The fourth Gospel is so strange and so startling because it operates at two levels, first that of Jesus and second that of John. After decades of pastoral care, guiding them through change, leading them out of the synagogue, protecting them from their own worst selves, reminding them of Christ the Lord, and showing them how to walk in the light, the towering figure of their beloved preacher was overtaken by death.

First, they lost Jesus, then they lost John. Both losses hurt with unspeakable pain. But here is what they learned: love carries us through loss. Love carries us through loss. Love outlasts loss. In fact, only self-opening love can bring any meaning through loss!


Our Lenten conversation partner St. Patrick deeply and fully shared this Johannine sense of loss and love, of loss in love.  The brooding, the longing, the poetry he and his followers, over many centuries, gave to life is located, met, at the intersection of loss and love, a spot we have known keenly in the last 12 months, as we recalled last week.

Near the year 400, a boy named Patrick was kidnapped in Britain and taken as a slave to Ireland.  For six long years he lived poor and alone, a shepherd slave, out in the cold green meadows and mountains.  He lived poor and alone, and as we mostly do, found his faith in trouble.  He turned to the Creator God of his parents, and found a magnificent source of strength.  Out of poverty, out of silence, out of fear, out of hunger grew the life changing faith of St. Patrick, who spent thirty years among the people of Ireland, bringing faith outside the Roman Empire. I wonder where we might find Patrick today.   For out beyond the bounds of what remains of Christian culture today there live many for whom the Gospel is pure news, not just good news, but news.  Our mission is blocks away as well as time zones away.  A friend who normally sits in the balcony when there is seating and seating in the balcony reminded me this winter of Thomas Cahill’s short book, his essay from some years ago, one with a jaunty title and a graceful lyrical composition, How the Irish Saved Civilization.  He tells about St. Patrick, and about his successors the Green Martyrs, and a country of green meadows.  Since our fifteenth Lenten conversation partner, here at Marsh Chapel 2021, is St. Patrick, it seemed time to blow the dust off the volume.

Patrick inspired a host of others to follow him and to follow his Christ.  He embodied a love of nature, a sense of confidence, and a capacity for vision which were wrought in the dark days of his poverty.  Out in the shepherd fields he found his love of nature.  His natural world was forever teaching him, forever succoring him, forever saving him.  Most of us are too far from nature.  We take too few walks, and attend too few funerals.  From this first love, he then found a confidence in God.  A confidence that gave him ease, real peace, in the face of difference, in the need for confession, and, centuries early on, as a champion of the place of women.  Faith is contagious, when it is confident, as Patrick was confident.   Somehow, this poor shepherd, this lover of nature, this confident happy fellow, found a capacity to envision, the power to envision, daily, a better world.  Nature, confidence, vision—these gifts are ours today as well.

For in Patrick’s wake there arose, in the fifth and sixth centuries, an Irish movement called the Green Martyrs.  They took to heart his love of nature, his sense of confidence, and his capacity for vision.  Their country, almost alone had received Christian faith without bloodshed—they had no “red martyrs”.  They knew though that the blood of the martyr is the seed of the faith.  So, they endeavored to offer themselves as Green Martyrs.  And off they went to live as hermits and monks, each in his little cell, copying books, providing hospitality to strangers, living out of doors, keeping a memory of past beauty and glory alive through the dark ages. *

They knew the bright side of Christ.   So, they went off into the green woods or the green mountains or the green islands of their native land—there to be faithful, to pray, to read, to love, to commune.  They went to draw nearer to God.


One follower of St Patrick in the sixth century wrote:

Grant me sweet Christ the grace to find—

Son of the living God

A small hut in a lonesome spot

To make it my abode

A little pool but very clear

To stand beside the place

Where all men’s sins are washed away

By sanctifying grace

A pleasant woodland all about

To shield it from the wind

And make a home for singing birds

Before it and behind. *

There is a holiness to the creation itself that we do not always well articulate.  One of our leading feminist theologians and teachers, Elizabeth Johnson, has in her work and teaching clearly reminded us of this.  Nature sings, teaches, helps, saves.  Bless those past and present Green Martyrs who by their example help us to live in easy communion with Nature, to walk lightly upon the earth.  Bless those past and present Green Martyrs who by their example notice the sacred groves in which we dwell.

An early Irish poet sang:

I am an estuary into the sea

I am a wave of the ocean

I am the sound of the sea

I am a powerful ox

I am a hawk on a cliff

I am a dewdrop in the sun

I am a plant of beauty

I am a boar for valor

I am a salmon in a pool

I am a lake in a plain

I am the strength of art*


From this easy communion with nature, there arose in Patrick and in his Green Martyrs a kind of confidence.  What an inspiring quality is confidence!  Confidence before potential conflict.  Confidence in the face of uncertainty.  Confidence, which the poor must have as the Scripture continually reminds us, in front of random hurt.  Confidence to offer hospitality (will they like my home? will they receive my friendship? will they accept my meal? will they reciprocate?).  Confidence to accept difference.  Confidence of women among men and men among women.  As Thomas Cahill says, it is confidence that builds a nation, a civilization, a culture, a people.  And it is confidence that is lost when a civilization grows weary and small.  Think of your own heroes, your own role models.  Were they not inspiringly confident?  Not arrogant, or pushy, or aggressive, or domineering.  Confident.

There is a connection between being at home in nature and being confident in life. There is confidence that comes from reading, from learning something every day. In 1843, just a visitor to the Irish city of Kerry noticed a poor farmer, alone at midday, and reading an old manuscript.  The visitor was startled to find, in the gnarled hands of this poor man, an old manuscript.  Written in the Irish language, in Celtic character.  Containing poems, stories, histories, philosophy.  Handed down from grandfather to father.   A poor man holding a priceless book. *

Sometimes gifts come from unexpected sources. Here is one.  Confidence.  Confidence that God is a God of love—no small affirmation.  Joseph Plunkett wrote:

I see his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes

His body gleams amid eternal snows

His tears fall from the skies

I see his face in every flower

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words

All pathways by his feet are worn

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn

His cross is every tree. *


Over a lifetime, one lived in communion with nature, and one filled with a sense of confidence, it may be that a capacity for vision emerges.  It was true for Patrick.  It was true for the Green Martyrs.  In their little huts, through the Dark Ages, fully at peace, furiously copying, making books, making books.  Living beyond heartache, into God’s future.  Learning to love words.  Recognizing that the one sacrifice needed, Christ crucified, has been made, by God.  Ritual sacrifices are no longer needed.  We may seek together God’s purpose.  This is good news for leaders, today.  I love the Bishop Cyprian, himself a lover of the city, whose motto still is central to leadership: “From the beginning, I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people”. *  That is, what will last is what we have the courage to share.  It may be that in our time, this very year, say, we are learning again to savor a biblical vision.

You know, the cities across upstate New York, my home, came to life 170 years ago, along the path of the Erie Canal.  In their, in our, spiritual constitution, lie buried, though not long dead, memories of what poverty can mean.  Today, we are fast becoming two nations, separate and unequal.  Our public institutions, protectors of the non-rich, are today imperiled.  Our public health.  Our public schools.  Our public parks and places.  Our public churches—I mean churches that have not yet succumbed to the temptation to return to sectarian life, those who will yet dare to be both residents and aliens, not merely resident aliens, willing to see in Christ the vision of a culture transformed, a culture and country to be shared. We need to remember the poor, this Lent.

For it is the poor, the outcast, who at depth know the endless contention of time, and of our time, caught as they are in its undertow.  We in our churches have forgotten our own poverty, our days not long past, of want.  Once, we were poor.  Your family, too, if you go back far enough or long enough.  Not that long ago.  Because we have forgotten, or hidden, our own hurt, not long past, we miss Jesus among the poor, Jesus who meets us amid the endless contention of life.

Here is a vision, a green country vision. We are a church universal, a church catholic.  We are not to leave the poor behind.

Will you acquire an easy communion with nature and nature’s God?

Will you seek a sense of confidence?

Will you develop a capacity for vision?

By the side of the road, from your little garden, will you share a love of nature, a sense of confidence, a capacity for vision?

Will the riches of the poor—nature, confidence, vision—be yours and ours to share?  Today?  As our spiritual worship?


Here is a challenge written this winter by Leigh Stein (the author most recently of the novel ‘Self Care’, a satire of the wellness industry and influencer culture) (NYT 2/21):  There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide.  We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places.  Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them.  Maybe we actually need to go to something like church? Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin. 

So, dear ones, walk the meadows and open landscapes of a spirited green country.  Watch this week for worship in life, the green country of lasting life, the places where Sunday and weekday join hands and dance.  If what you are saying and doing has some place in the liturgy on Sunday, then you may have found fruitful life:

Does it glorify God?

Does it meet and greet the neighbor?

Does it provoke honest confession?

Does it provide for children, for the poor?

Does it include silence?

Does it allow a listening for truth?

Does it further learning and teaching?

Does it involve a commitment, a decision?

Does it build, broadly understood, the Body of Christ?

May our daily grace be the blessing of Brigid’s hospitable monastery, St. Brigid of Kildare:

I should like a great lake of finest ale

For the King of kings

I should like a table of the choicest food

For the family of heaven

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith

And the food be forgiving love

I should welcome the poor to my feast

For they are God’s children

I should welcome the sick to my feast

For they are God’s joy

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place

And the sick dance with the angels

God bless the poor

God bless the sick

And bless your human race

God bless our food

God bless our drink

All homes, O God, embrace. *

*Drawn from Thomas Cahill’s excellent essay:  How the Irish Saved Civilization (NY: Doubleday, 1995).

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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