Sermon Illustrations on defining moments
The Most Vital and Significant Moments
I have been pondering the nature of presence and encounter since first reading Martin Buber’s I and Thou as a university student. His assertion that “All real living is meeting” struck a deeply resonant chord in me. I recognized even then—and now know with much more certainty—that the most vital and significant moments in life are moments of encounter.
Whether it is encounter with others, the Wholly Other, or myself, these are moments when I know that life is its own meaning. Presence makes encounter possible. It also makes life meaningful. The search for meaning is really a search for presence, because grand systems of truth or meaning can never satisfy the basic human longing for life to be meaningful. Without presence, nothing is meaningful. But in the luminous glow of presence, all of life becomes saturated with significance.
The Power of Silence & the Pregnant Pause
For many of us, silence is something we try to avoid, both in conversations and in preaching. But as Richard John Neuhaus aptly describes in his time watching Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his sermons, there is power in silence:
During the times I was with Dr. King, I was struck by the way he did this almost consistently. Upon being introduced, or when the time came for the sermon, he would stand and wait, sometimes for ten seconds or more. It was what is known as a pregnant moment.
It was a very active kind of waiting. His eyes would pass back and forth over the assembly, establishing his identity to them and theirs to him. Then, when all was quiet and it had been signaled that something important was about to happen, he would begin.
Richard John Neuhaus, Freedom for Ministry, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 161.
Farewell to the Known and Dear
St. Columba was an Irish monk and abbot, who is largely responsible for the evangelization of Scotland. He founded the monastery at Iona, which became a training ground and launching point for further missionary activity into Scotland. While most folks associate him with his adopted country of Scotland, it’s easy to forget that leaving his homeland-Ireland, was quite difficult for him. After once seeing the distant shore of his beloved Antirim coast, Columba had to steel himself to complete the work he had vowed he would to God. This included bringing the gospel to the Picts, a notoriously difficult and hard-edged people. To keep his vow, Columba prayed this prayer:
Cul ri Erin, the back turned towards Ireland;
Farewell to the known and dear,
Advance to the unknown,
With it’s formidable hazards,
Its sharp demands.
All of us are not called to leave a known land to plant the gospel. But we are all called to have the courage to face the unknown and the uncertain faithfully. Perhaps we can draw some inspiration from St. Columba and this prayer.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Celtic Daily Prayer, Harper Collins.
Sleepwalking in a Dark Wood
For many of us, life can easily become disorienting and discouraging. Existential questions often emerge that never have before. As stressful as modern life can be, it is somewhat comforting to know that we are not the only ones who have experienced the bewildering nature of life itself. The thirteenth century poet and philosopher Dante Alighieri experienced the messiness of life more than most, and when he sat down to write his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, this is how he began:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense
the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.
But to rehearse the good it also brought me
I will speak about the other things I saw there.
How I got into it I cannot clearly say
for I was moving like a sleepwalker
Dante Alighieri, Dante’s Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets, ed. Daniel Halpern, Translated by Seamus Heaney, Ecco Press, 1993.
The Way We Answer the Door
The Rule of Benedict is a document that has ordered the life of Benedictine monks for 1500 years. That remarkable document, written by Saint Benedict of Nursia, instructs the monks in how they are to live their daily lives together in community. One of the things that Benedict describes is a particular role, the “porter” of the monastery.
The porter is the one who opens the door to the monastery when someone knocks. Not much of a role, you say? Ah, but there is so much to it, so much entailed, and so much communicated in how one opens a door. Roman Catholic nun and author Joan Chittister goes so far as to say, “The way we answer doors is the way we deal with the world.”
In the Rule of Benedict, the porter is given very specific instructions. He is to sleep near the entrance to the monastery so he can hear and respond in a timely way when someone knocks. Then, as soon as anyone knocks, likely a poor person because they often sought refuge in monasteries, the porter is to reply, “
…Your blessing, please.” That’s before he even knows who is on the other side of the door. Before the porter knows who that person is or why he or she is there, he is to praise God for that person’s presence and to ask for the person’s blessing.
Scott Bowerman, Source Material from Martin B. Copenhaver, “Who’s That Knocking On My Door?” in Journal for Preachers.