Strengthen Your Core: Presence
On a scale of 1-10, how present are you today? In early 2016, this photo of young people at a museum in Amsterdam, in front of Rembrandt’s painting Night Watch, went viral. It was taken in 2014 sometimes, but in the way of the internet, somehow sparked interest in early 2016. “Oh, young people and technology!” people lamented. “They aren’t even paying attention to the beautiful artwork that is right next to them.” Of course, the true story was a little different than a bunch of teens ignoring the art around them. There at the museum on a school trip, they had been instructed to read more about the artist on an app on their phone. Other photos of the class show them absorbed in looking at the paintings. A picture taken out of context, it seems. There was a provocative article written in response to the quick criticism: “This Photo Went Viral Because We Love Shaming Teens For Using The Technology We Give Them.” (emphasis added) Some other images to consider: This photo, taken during the presidential election campaign season in 2016, of Hillary Rodham Clinton with a crowd full of people wanting “selfies” – which meant they all actually turned their back on her. She was right there! But everyone was facing the other way. Or this image that shows the difference in the crowds waiting for the announcement of a new pope: Pope Benedict in 2005, and Pope Francis in 2013. (All those lights are phones, not candles!)
It’s easy to blame technology, meant to make it easier for us to communicate, easier than ever to stay in touch and stay connected, for making us less and less present. I know I’m guilty of this myself. If I’m waiting in a checkout line, I’m probably playing on my phone instead of chatting with the person ahead of me. If I need to eat a meal alone, use my phone as a wall of sorts: I’m not alone, not bored, not just sitting there. I’m doing something important! A working lunch! But I think technology, as with most things, is just the tool, the tool that we can use in good ways and bad, in ways that enhance our lives and detract, in ways that magnify our impulses. And our impulse, apparently, is to disengage rather than engage, to isolate rather than build up relationships, to wall ourselves in, rather than break down barriers. Our technologies, I think, have just made it easier to follow through on those impulses.
How present are you today? “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.” Not present like gift – that’s next week! No, we vow that part of our faithful core-strengthening discipleship comes by 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 doing any number of other things. You’re here! You showed up! Done, right? And indeed, I am so 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. I do not take it for granted, your presence. The presence of each one of you. But it’s more than that.
Today we heard a lesson from the book of Hebrews. This anonymously authored book is counted as an Epistle, a letter, but it is really more of a sermon than a letter. Hebrews contains 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. Our Adult Sunday School class has spent a lot of time working with through Hebrews together.
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. Apparently, gently encouraging people not to skip out on worship and fellowship isn’t new! The author of Hebrews says we shouldn’t “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some” (emphasis added), but rather we should encourage each other. So, we can experience God’s being full present to us, especially because of knowing Jesus, and in turn we are meant to be present and encouraging to one another, building each other up in faith, love, and good works. Being present is about our presence with God, and our presence with one another. God and neighbor, a pairing that has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?
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. Just yesterday, I was visiting with someone who was near tears telling me how lonely she feels, how rare it is that people come to visit her. Just showing up was a gift I could offer, and it humbled me to have my time so valued, when I can so easily mentally check out of being fully present. How present are you? Are you present in your own life? Are you present here? In your relationship with God? With those around you for whom your presence could be a gift of love and hope?
In one of my Doctor of Ministry classes, one of the most challenging, one that required our deep, active participation all day every day, 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? What things might you have to tune out so that you can focus on being present to God and neighbor? 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. The curtain, the veil is drawn back in the work of Jesus, and God is as close to us as we will let God get. Always present for us. 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?