Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples: Presence
“As members of the body of Christ and in this congregation of The United Methodist Church, we will faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our presence.”
Many of you have heard me joke before that I consider a mildly overcast cloudy day with a low probability of precipitation to be my favorite weather for a Sunday. See, in my experience, you don’t want snowy weather, of course – slippery roads always impact worship attendance. You don’t want it to be too cold or too rainy either – hard to talk yourself out from under the covers on a day like that, when instead, you can worship at Church of the Divine Mattress. But you also don’t want it to be too nice out either. Sunny, gorgeous, warm days aren’t good for worship attendance either, when everyone decides they’d rather worship at the Church of the 18th Hole instead. No, for optimal worship attendance, a mildly overcast day – not too cold, not too warm, not to sunny, not to snowy, but just right, like porridge for Goldilocks – that’s the perfect weather for everybody to show up for worship.
Ok, I jest, a bit(!). We’re in the midst of sermon series on the 7 habits of highly effective disciples. We’ve talked about our life’s thesis statement – our purpose statement. And now we’re looking at our life’s supporting paragraphs, the evidence in our lives that proves our purpose. Last week we talked about prayer, and today, we’re talking about presence. Not presents as in gifts – that’s next week, actually. But rather, presence – as in – showing up.
In some ways, this seems like the easiest one of all, doesn’t it? Support the Church by your presence? Well, you’re here, aren’t you? I mean, isn’t this sermon a bit like preaching to the choir? You’ve all come today to be in this time of worship when you could be home fixing your food for the Super Bowl, or recovering from last night’s ‘Cuse/Duke game. You’re here! You showed up! Done, right? And indeed, I’m thankful that you are here, that of all the things you could be doing, what you are doing now is gathering together with a group of journeyers on the way, praising God, and trying to listen for God’s direction in your life. That’s a part of showing up that means a lot. And when we make the vow to participate in the ministry of the church by our presence, actually showing up to worship and to ministry and mission events – that’s a very serious part of what we commit to doing. But it’s more than that.
Today our scripture lesson is from the book of Hebrews. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, which is really more of a sermon than a letter. But despite our not knowing who authored the text, we find in Hebrews some of the most moving sections in all of the scriptures. You’re probably most familiar with Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” which the author follows with a beautiful litany of how people responded to God and how we are called to do likewise: by faith, by faith, by faith.
But here in this section we find the author reminding us that because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are able to draw even closer in relationship to God. We are able to come into God’s presence without a barrier, without a curtain that keeps us separated, as did the designs of the temple in Jerusalem that kept people away from the holiest place where it was thought God would dwell. Because of Jesus, we can claim the gift of being invited into God’s very presence. The author goes on to tell us how we ought to come into God’s presence though: by seeking to have a clean heart and a clear conscience, by holding fast to our faith, “provoking” one another to good deeds and loving actions – I love that language, that idea of provoking each other to do good – not normally how we try to provoke one another, is it? – and by meeting together, encouraging one another as we prepare our hearts and lives for God’s kingdom.
The scriptures attest to the gift of God’s presence. I think particularly of the recurring theme of thankfulness for God’s presence in the Psalms. Psalm 139 in my bible is titled, “The inescapable God.” I love that. The psalmist asks, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” In this case, the psalmist’s tone lets us know that sometimes he wishes he could escape God’s presence. But it isn’t possible. God is always with us. I’ve tried to stop in my prayers asking for God’s presence, because that’s a given, unchangeable; and instead I’m thanking God for God’s presence.
In Jesus, we find the one who is God’s presence embodied, God-in-the-flesh. God, already ever-present, becoming one with us, because we still didn’t seem to get it – God’s inescapable presence. In the gospels we see Jesus demonstrate the power of being present. Yes, Jesus’ ministry was about his preaching, teaching, and healing. But I think one of the most powerful things Jesus did was spend time with people. He spent time with all kinds of people that most went out of their way to avoid. And in these instances, it isn’t always the content of the conversation between Jesus and the person that the gospel writers viewed as significant. It was the very act of Jesus spending time with others that was powerful. It was Jesus eating dinner with Zacchaeus. Jesus spending time talking to women as equals. Jesus spending time in regions filled with Gentiles. Jesus eating meals with Pharisees and sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors – Jesus honored them all with his presence, with his time, with conversation, with relationship, and made them feel, maybe for the first time ever, worth it. His presence was powerful. And so is ours! Giving someone the gift of your presence is just that – a gift you have to offer. A gift we too often withhold, intentionally or unintentionally.
I think of that commercial – I wasn’t sure even what product it is for and had to look it up to find this image (bad job commercial!) but I knew the “plot” of the commercial well. Schoolchildren are putting on a concert for their parents, singing, while the parents, with iPads and smartphones and cameras and other devices try to get the best shots and recordings of their kids performing. They get closer and closer and push and shove, all to capture the special moment – all of them, except, of course, the smug parents who have the cool technology that allows them a high-quality zoom without leaving their seats. The question I’m left with, though, is: was anyone actually listening to the concert? Don’t get me wrong. I love photography – it is an art form. But if we’re honest, most of us aren’t really photographers. I encountered this commercial coming to life when I attended Sam’s kindergarten graduation last year. Everyone, me included, was busy trying to record and photograph the graduation. I wonder how much we missed in the process! I mostly remember being frustrated with the kid who kept standing in front of Sam on the risers, blocking my good picture. It definitely isn’t just teenagers. And it isn’t just technology. Our dependence on our technological devices is just the current way we avoid being really present. Just the current way we put up a wall between us and everyone else. Everywhere you go, you see people who are at an event, with people, but they still aren’t really present. Their attention, their minds, their spirits are somewhere else entirely. There, but not really there. Are you present in your own life? Are you present here? In your relationship with God?
In my last Doctor of Ministry class, the one I took over the summer, the professor had us start each class by rating ourselves – in our notebooks, not out loud, but just for ourselves – on a few questions. And the first question was always, “On a scale of 1-10, how present am I today?” It was a helpful question to ask. Some mornings I was ready to go, excited. Some mornings I didn’t feel very present at first. But just asking the question reminded me that I wanted to be fully present to my classwork. Why would I bother spending money and time to take a class for a degree that I don’t have to have, unless I was going to be fully present for everything I was meant to be learning? I wanted to be present. And asking the question helped me remember that.
This week, I want you to ask yourself that same question. Not just at the start of the day, but several times a day. On a scale of 1-10, how present am I? You can start right now, in the quiet of your mind. On a scale of 1-10, how present are you in worship right now? And then ask yourself that question all week long. How present are you at work? At school? How present are you when you’re driving? When you are at the store? How present are you when you speak with your children or your parents or your spouse or your friends? How present are you at meetings? At church? When you volunteer? When you walk down the sidewalk? When you interact with a cashier? How present are you when you talk to God? When God is trying to talk to you? How present are you in your life?
Ask yourself that question, and see if you can figure out if you are showing up to life. What areas of your life do wish you were more present for? Can you start making sure that you are really present with your family? With friends? With those in need? In the life of this congregation? In your relationship with God?
God is here. God is always here, and here is always wherever you are. And everything God does is an attempt to get us to show up too, to realize God’s presence, to be fully present ourselves, to invite others to start showing up too. God is here. Are you?