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June 28, 2020

O Christ, Surround Me by Ruth Moore

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Seven years ago I had the privilege of taking a sabbatical. I spent 6 weeks of that time in Ireland, Scotland and England. I studied Celtic Christianity at a retreat center in Armagh in Northern Ireland. It was an eye opening experience for me in many ways.

When I was in Armagh I stayed at a priory with Roman Catholic priests. I had my own room and bathroom. The priests had never met a woman minister before, and I was quite an oddity to them. My two favorite memories while at the priory centered around hospitality. One night the cook made me a pineapple and ham pizza for dinner because Americans love pizza and I had to choke that baby down  with a smile. Ugh!

I also had to drive from the priory into town every morning to study at The Centre for Celtic Spirituality. This was before we had maps on our phones. Plus if you know me, I am extremely directionally challenged. Every morning I managed to get myself into town, but I got lost going home to the priory which was about 15 miles out into the country. Every day for 7 days I got lost. And every day I stopped at a different place or found a person on the rural roads to ask for directions. And every day a garage owner, a nursing home worker, a farmer, or a hiker patiently gave me directions back to the priory. I apparently became a story to share among the locals by the time I left – “Did you meet the Protestant woman minister who can’t find the priory they asked each other?” But every day, a smile, a patient telling and retelling of the directions, and a wave to send me on my way.

I tell you these stories because I feel like I met my people when I was in the British Isles. They looked like me, they lived near the water which I love, they were friendly but not intrusive, and they loved beer. And my people are part of a tradition of Christianity called Celtic Christianity. The hymn we are going to hear during this sermon and sing at the end of worship, it a Celtic hymn. I love the melody and it is one of my favorite hymns, which is why I choose it as part of our hymn series for this summer.

Celtic Christianity was at its highlight from 400-1000 AD, but it has so much to teach us today. It is a Christianity, a spirituality, and a way of living, that is lived ethically, authentically and with courage. It calls to me in these days of pandemic and calls for racial and social justice for all.

For Celtic Christians, the presence of God – known most intimately in the God among us in person, Jesus Christ – is what grounds them. Our final hymn today – God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me,  is based on a prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. A breastplate was a shield you would put on or bind to yourself to protect you in battle. Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland in the middle 400’s. This ancient prayer of St. Patrick is at the very heart of Celtic Christian belief. It is all about the presence of God and powerfully evokes God’s protection against the forces of evil. Divine presence and protection are the most marked and distinctive features of Celtic Christianity. Let’s listen to verse 1 of our highlighted hymn for today.

God be the love to search and keep me; God be the prayer to move my voice; God be the strength to now uphold me: O Christ surround me; O Christ surround me.

God be the strength to now uphold me especially resonates with me right now.

The history of the Celtic church is rich and complicated. There were saints, and martyrs and monks and nuns. The first Celtic Christians were priests who came to Ireland from Rome, but since the British Isles and especially Ireland, were cut off from Rome by water and distance, the hierarchy of the Roman church is not evident in  Celtic Christianity. The leaders of the Celtic church, St. Patrick, St. Brigid, St. Columba, were a part of a monastic community and the villages were built around the monastery. The leaders of the Celtic Church followed a religion that was primarily concerned with the relationships between people in an isolated rural landscape. And if you know me, you know that my faith is all about relationships. The villagers learned from those in the monastery and stories were shared around the fire and the table. The presence of God become real in the presence of those around them who shared the stories of the faith. Verse 2

Bind to myself the Name of Holy, great cloud of witnesses enfold; prophets, apostles, angels witness: O Christ surround me; O Christ surround me.

The early Celtic Christians lived not only close to nature, but with nature. They had an overwhelming consciousness of the immanence of God within the natural world. The Celts saw the natural world as a revelation of the Divine and a place of encounter with God. They believed in the sacredness of nature, and that nature is a reminder of the invisible presence of God. Every time I work in my garden, water my flowers, or sit on my deck and breathe in the scents of the petunias in the pots, I am reminded of the presence of God in my life. Every time I take a hike, or swim in the ocean, or paddle around a lake, I am reminded of the beauty of God’s creation. And I remember that all things come from the Divine, and therefore all things are sacred. And I remember those words from Genesis ‘And God saw that it was good.’ What God creates is good. I need to be reminded of that. At the heart of all creation is that original goodness, over which evil can never ultimately triumph. That gives me hope, in a time when there is not much hope to be seen.  Where do you see the presence of God in nature? How does the natural world feed your soul and give you hope? Verse 3

Brightness of sun and glow of moonlight, flashing of lightning, strength of wind, depth of the sea to soil of planet: O Christ, surround me; O Christ, surround me.

Verse 4 of our hymn again talks about the presence and protection of Christ, with us and for us at all times. The Celts felt the presence of Christ almost physically woven around their lives. This almost tangible experience of Jesus’ presence in your life was perhaps the most striking way in which the Celts expressed their overwhelming sense of the divine presence. And this presence was always mediated through a this-world reality, so it is difficult to imagine a faith more down to earth than this one. For the Celts getting up, kindling the fire, going to work, going to bed, as well as birth, marriage, settling in a new house, even death were occasions for recognizing the presence of God. Being aware of the presence of God in Christ in all I do, looking for where Christ is pointing me to go next, and feeling his support all around me, gives me courage in these challenging times. And I believe the light of Christ is calling us in new and different directions as a church. Here is verse 4.

Walking behind to hem my journey, going ahead to light my way, and from beneath, above and all ways: O Christ, surround me; O Christ, surround me.

Remember the special pizza fixed just for me in the priory? And the patient directions given to me day after day? Those were examples of the generosity and kindness of the Celtic people. The ancient Celtic monastic communities were not only places of prayer and learning – they were also places of sanctuary and hospitality. There is a story from the 5th century about Celtic monk, St. Martin, who passed a naked beggar on the road. He had such compassion for the man that he removed his cloak and give it to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which Christ appeared to him, wearing the very cloak he had given to the beggar that day. And Christ spoke to him and said: “Whatever you do to the least of these your brothers and sisters, you do to me’ (Mt. 25:40). This was the vision that was at the heart of the hospitality practiced by Celtic Christianity – seeing Christ in every person. Our hymn takes that hospitality one step further and asks us to be the Christ to all who see, hear and know us. Play verse 5.

Christ in the eyes of all who see me, Christ in the ears that hear my voice, Christ in the hearts of all who know me: O Christ, surround me; O Christ, surround me.

In its quiet and beautiful way the hymn God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me is the calling for my life as a Christian. It calls all of us to be the face of Christ to all whom we meet.  That is why we can wear a mask when we are in public spaces. It assures us of the presence of a loving and protective God who will light our way forward in faith. That is why we can go move ahead in faith and in action to work for equity, and equality, and fairness and compassion as we listen to the struggles of our Black brothers and sisters, and others who are vulnerable and marginalized. This hymn encourages us to be aware of the sacredness of nature and our responsibility to care for God’s creation. And it binds us to the witnesses and saints who have gone before us to show us the way. We have a lot of listening and learning and showing up ahead of us folks. Let us do so knowing that Christ surrounds us and will give us the strength for the journey. May it be so, Amen.


“Sacred Living,” by Grace Clunie

“The Celtic Way,” by Ian Bradley