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Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (2019)

Nov 17, 2019

Passage: Luke 21:5-19

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Detail:

Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (2019)
November 17th, 2019
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Isaiah 65:17-25 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19

 

On December 3, 2002, I had the privilege of being in the north of England on a trip with some friends. We were staying on the island of Lindisfarne, which is a small tidal island near the border with Scotland. For those who are familiar with English weather, it will not surprise you to hear that the weather for several days had been much what you might expect for that time of year in the north of England: cold, windy, and rainy. But when we awoke on the morning of Dec. 3rd, it was brilliantly clear and unseasonably mild. We decided to take full advantage of the day, and so we walked down to the beach. I took a bit of a detour and walked out across the rocks and sand to a small islet called St. Cuthbert’s Isle. In area, St. Cuthbert’s Isle is no bigger than Lackey chapel and the parking lot, and there is nothing on it except a wooden cross and the foundation stone remains of a tiny hut that, centuries before, had been where monastic hermits from the Lindisfarne community - one of whom was St. Cuthbert - lived. On the far side of St. Cuthbert’s Isle, there is a small outcropping of rock that rises about eight feet and which offers a stunning view of the tidal flats. I walked up on this outcropping and was soaking in the view. And I will leave you to draw the biblical parallel, but all of a sudden, from behind me, I heard a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind. I turned around and was stunned to see a massive flock of Arctic terns coming straight at me. I hardly had time to react, and in an instant, I was surrounded by this massive flock of birds. I turned around to see the entire flock swerve quickly to the left and up and then descend just as quickly to land on the tidal flat about 100 yards away. It was amazing. And I count that as one of the moments when I felt more certain than ever that I had just had an encounter with God. 

Another such moment came a couple of years later when I was attending a Holy Week Tenebrae service at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, MI. If you are familiar with the Tenebrae services that are typically conducted during the last three days of Holy Week, then you know how moving they can be. At this service, which is conducted in almost total darkness except for a few candles, sections from the book of Lamentations are chanted in a hauntingly beautiful way as one hears the ancient cry of anguish over the destruction of Jerusalem. I had never been to a Tenebrae service before, so when it began, I didn’t know what would be happening. But as the lament proceeded with the refrain “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God,” I became keenly aware of God’s presence.

Many of you have heard me tell the story of another such experience, when my wife and I attended St. Anne’s incognito on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2015. When we entered the chapel, we heard the choir rehearsing, we were welcomed with genuine welcome, and we took part in a worship service that exceeded our expectations in terms of joy. As the service drew to a close, we both turned to one another and without even having to say a word, we both acknowledged that we’d had a powerful encounter with God.   

I’m sharing these stories with you because I think it is important for all of us to share stories of times when we felt the presence of God. My hope is that as I’ve been recounting these stories, you’ve been reminded of your own stories; your own experiences of God. Because I am nearly certain that each of you has at least one such story to tell. And I hope that you do share those stories with each other because I am convinced that if we reflect on the times when we’ve had an encounter with God, we will discover how each encounter caused us to grow and to move forward in our understanding of God. 

But even while the memory of past encounters with God may be beautiful, it’s important to remember that we cannot dwell forever on the past. There is always something new, some as-yet-unknown encounter with God that has the potential to draw us ever further along in our knowledge of God. So the downside of dwelling too much on our past encounters with God is that we might forget that we can encounter God in new ways every single day. In other words, if you find yourself asking, “What’s standing in the way of my new encounter with God?” The answer could be “your last encounter with God.” 

I think Jesus is alluding to this need not to dwell on the past in what he says about the temple in Jerusalem. If you recall, Jesus’ disciples are commenting on how beautiful the temple is - which, no doubt it was, considering it was the place where the God of Israel was said to dwell. But instead of politely agreeing with them, Jesus makes a point of saying that the temple will be thrown down. Yes, even the beautiful temple where so many had encountered God was not permanent. And Jesus goes on to say that any attempt to pinpoint exactly where God is is bound to fail. Because God is ever drawing us forward to discover new encounters that we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for.  

As many of you know, your St. Anne’s representatives just returned from the Diocesan Convention. At the convention, we gave thanks for our bishop, Skip Adams, and the time he has spent with us now that he is nearing retirement and the end of his time with us as bishop. It was a chance to recall the good things that have happened over the past few years, but rather than dwell on the past, +Skip's parting message to us as a diocese was to “Ponder anew;” to look forward even to the uncertain future with a sense of awe and wonder because God is still at work and will encounter us in new and unexpected ways. In what he said, I think Bishop Skip was reminding us of the central hope we have as Christians: that God is able to raise up even that which has been brought down and to make new that which has grown old. It might seem strange that we heard such a message of hope and new beginning in the midst of an ending, but I think our bishop understands and has done a good job of teaching that we cannot dwell on the past when there is so much good for us to look forward to.   

As for the Diocese, so for St. Anne’s, so for each one of us. For all of the beautiful encounters with God that we may have in this life, there are yet more to come, and there is even more beauty awaiting us. So even as we remember and give thanks for times in our lives when we have encountered God, we have the promise that the best is yet to come.