November 17, 2019 – The Rev. Hugh Stevenson

Proper 28, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

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There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. Luke 21:11

We live in apocalyptic times. Let me explain what “apocalyptic” means. It is the opposite of the words of the song: “Don’t worry; be happy.”

Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note for note.
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double.  Don’t worry, be happy[1]

But we do worry because we are threatened by the coming of “the Four horsemen of the apocalypse,” which are disease and war, famine and death.[2] the gospels list the signs of tribulation as “great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”[3]

We don’t need reminding that we live in times of trouble. In Northern California alone in 2017, 245,000 acres burnt in the Tubbs and other fires, 8900 structures were destroyed and 44 people died. The following year, 150,000 acres were burnt in the Camp fire and 85 civilians died. This year, in the Kincade fire 77,000 acres burnt, 374 structures were lost but no fatalities. These are only some of the many fires throughout the state. Many of us know about sitting in darkness and about being evacuated from our homes.

One of the reasons for the fires is the growth of vegetation brought about by heavy rains. In 2017, the Russian River reached three feet above flood stage and washed away 500 homes. The El Niño of the winter of 1997–98 flooded the whole of the central valley.

Polar bears, Sea turtles, reefs are at risk because of climate change. October 2019 was the hottest month worldwide on record. Monthly temperatures average about 2F above average. Glaciers are gone and sea levels are rising.

I checked out an earthquake map and saw that the Rodgers Fault lies to the east of us here, running north-west between the Calvary Catholic Cemetery at the end of Farmers Lane and the Rural Cemetery on Franklin Avenue. Earthquakes are an ever-present danger.

We have had any number of epidemics: AIDS, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, H1N1 flu, Legionnaires Disease, West Nile Disease and SARS; quite apart from the common diseases of cancer, cholera, influenza and now  measles among those who resist vaccinations.

No longer do we fear being the victims of a terrorist attack. More likely now is the danger from a shooter who should not be in the possession of an assault weapon with a bump stock. On October 1, just over 2 years ago, a shooter in Las Vegas shot 1100 rounds in 10 minutes killing 58 concert-goers and wounding many others.

These are some of the apocalyptic catastrophes that we face in our own day. There have been plenty in ages past. Apocalyptic literature was designed to meet the challenges of these disastrous times. We heard part of the Little Apocalypse from St. Luke’s Gospel (chapter 21) this morning. There are similar passages in the other gospels. The purpose of this literature was to bring encouragement to the suffering during times of persecution. Thus the Book of Daniel was written during the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (who reigned 175-164 BC) and the Book of Revelation from the time of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). The devastation was predicted in advance. Note how the gospels project the suffering into the future. “not one stone will be left upon another,” “there will be earthquakes, famines and plagues,” “they will arrest you and persecute you.”

It is necessary for all these things to happen “first, but the end will come.” (the τέλος meaning the consummation, the closure;  not the  ἔσχατον from which we get the word Eschatology, “the study of last things”). The apocalypses in the gospels conclude with this hope:  “Then you will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”[4]

In testing times we need to remember that we are not abandoned by God. “He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.”[5] We belong within the communion of the faithful including the saints, many of whom were martyred in times of persecution. Within that community we belong to this congregation where we are known, loved and prayed for. Here we hear scriptures which we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest so that we may hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life”[6] and we hear them interpreted in the sermon. While we were powerless in October we came here to recharge our batteries (both physical and spiritual). So it makes sense to support this congregation in whatever ways we can. Not only for what it provides for us, but also for what it provides for those less fortunate than ourselves.

Among the great cloud of witnesses who surround of us is my patron, St. Hugh (1135-1200) who was Bishop of Lincoln towards of the 12th century. Today (November 17) is his feast day. Perhaps few will have heard of him. After Becket he was the most popular saint in Medieval England. He was happily ensconced in a Carthusian monastery in Avalon in Eastern France when he got the call. He really did not want to go to England: first because the climate was so abysmal (not to mention the food!) and second because it was ruled by Henry II, a violent man who was responsible for the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral (Christmas 1170). Henry had made an outburst, “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”[7] As a penance he was required to found a number of monasteries, including one in Somerset. Hugh was sent to supervise and when they had no money, he told the king he had to pay up.

Hugh offended Henry by excommunicating one of Henry’s deputy assistants and for refusing to accept Henry’s nominee for a position in his cathedral. He was dicing with death from an unpredictable monarch. He met Henry in a forest, and Henry tried to bully him with silent treatment. But Hugh was a Carthusian who loved silence and began to pray. After awhile Henry gave up and began to laugh. Hugh was charming with a great sense of humor. Three kings and three archbishops were the pallbearers at his funeral.

Those times were no less terrifying than today. We need to see them as a overture to the glory that is to come So let us look up and watch out for the deliverance which is to come.


[1] Don’t worry, be happy, sung by Bobby McFerrin (1988) and covered by many others

[2] Listed by St. John the Divine in the book of Revelation 6:1-8

[3] Luke 21:11

[4] Luke 21:27f  and //s

[5] Psalm 121:4. One of the great choruses in Mendelssohn’s Elijah

[6] The penultimate Sunday of the Church’s year is “Bible Sunday (from the collect of the day, BCP p.236, Proper 28)

[7] Quoted by James Comey when he appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017. With a smile Sen. Angus King of Maine said he was about to say the same thing.