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Based on the Scripture readings:
Matthew 18:15-20

2008 September 7
Recovenanting Sunday
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Right for Present

This is now my seventh recovenanting Sunday here, although for the first year or two of my ministry, I didnít know that we were actually supposed to repeat the words of our ancient covenant, and I left them out, so it took me a couple of tries to get to where we are now.  But it is a huge joy to begin another church year together.

My first fall here we held a retreat in October, and one of the questions that we discussed was simply why people first had come to this place and why they had stayed.  

There were a number of meaningful answers, but one of them keeps sticking with me.

One man said that the first time that he entered this sanctuary he felt the presence of God here.  He felt the presence of God here.

That is a powerful observation.  It is properly awesome. And, it is scary, too.

The way I heard him, it wasnít something that was forced by the architecture, the music, or the worship leaders.  But it was something that he could feel, nurtured by the stained glass, the cross, the organ, and everything else that assembles in this room.  And by everything else, I mean everyone else, too.

I am a little tentative to say this, but on some level, with many dimensions of meaning, that is the primary reason for any of us to come to this place, and so it has been for the millennia, and so it will be this year.  We come to perceive God with us, which is the translation of Immanuel, which is the whole story of Jesusí incarnation, which is the essence of Christianity.  It is the assurance that begins at Baptism and continues in a funeral:  the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, we are not alone, in life, in death, in life beyond death.  The presence of God is our foundation.

Now in my family, because we have young children and minimum social life on weeknights, we spent the last fortnight watching political conventions, and Iíll come back to that in another sermon, but one of the things that intrigued me was how each body engaged the issue of claiming to have the presence of God.  Salvation is probably a bigger topic in politics than the pulpit these days, and it is clear to me that at least four people were presented not only as anointed, not only as the chosen, but also as princes of peace, with rods and staffs to comfort us, and the blessing -- overtly claimed -- of God.  Thatís going to be a fascinating dimension of this fall -- who will claim the mantle of God, and I can show my cards right now and say that I never vote for a messiah because I have one already, though thatís another sermon,

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too.  Still, there was a huge debate over who has the presence of God.

And then, without my choosing it, the lectionary gave us this short passage from Matthew to begin our church year, and right there at the end of it is a discussion of the presence of God.  And Matthew did not write this in a vacuum, but amidst another debate, so there is some important background to ponder.

As background, Matthew knew a rabbinical line that has become rather familiar to Christians

Before Matthew wrote about Jesus, and maybe before Jesus even spoke, the Rabbis spoke about the Torah exactly like this:  ďIf two or three sit together and the words of the law (are spoken) between them, the divine presence rests between them.Ē  This is a clear and certain claim that we can know something about how God becomes present, and in fact divine presence is a core value enunciated by the rabbis, and I have nothing but respect for this description. 

Matthew modified it just a little, though.  He said that where two or three are gathered in Jesusí name, then Jesus is, and this phrase is important, in the midst of them.

A lawyerís mind knows that these are almost at different as black and white.  A poetís mind sees that they are awfully close.  And both the lawyer and the poet have something to show us.

Matthew was in a minority church, far different than what we know through later history, and he was making a bold and loving claim that we inherit today.  Matthew says you donít have to gather to study the law or perhaps even sit or even speak.  When we gather in the name of Jesus, Godís presence is not just resting between us but is even in us, somehow.

This is not a reflection on how wonderful Matthew was compared to the Rabbis.  In fact, without the Rabbis there would be no Jesus or Matthew.  And we must remember that what Rabbis emphasized then is very different from the wonders and riches of Judaism today, so hear no successionism or triumphalism in my note.  But note the wonderful spirit that liberates and celebrates this insight regarding Godís presence when we gather in Jesusí name and when we wonder where to find God. 

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God IS present to us, in our midst.  God IS within us.  Even as God, thank God, is beyond us, too.

If you donít know me yet, it wonít take long to learn that my Christian commitment unabashedly calls me to talk about how God is in the midst of all of this world.  I understand God calling me to talk about economics and the environment, about abuse of power and abuse of women, about homelessness and living modestly amidst affluence, about children and healing and international relations.  Those are all deep commitments.  But my first devotion is to God.  My devotion is to seeking Godís presence and following Godís way in all those topics, and I come here for that because our purpose as a church is worship and service first. Our purpose is Metanoia: change, new life, even as we face and vanquish death.  I am here because God is here and not vice versa and not for any other fundamental.

Our Deacons and other leaders here have been spending some months praying and discussing how to go deeper and farther together this year.  If thatís what you seek, then you are in the right place.  If God is what you seek this year, then you are in the right place.  If finding God, perceiving God, following God is something that you seek by looking at those gathered in Jesusí name, and looking at the world with His love, then you are in the right place.

To be honest, a measure of this is scary.  It is abnormal.  It means change.  It requires courage.  It promotes conflict.  The news that God is in our midst is not simple good news.

But there is a passage in the Gospel of John where folks are trying to discern whether or not to gather in Jesusí name, specifically whether or not to follow Jesus in his ministry.  And Jesus asks them if they might not like to fall back a bit, as others have done.  And Peter says, quite simply, ďTo whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.Ē

I donít always get all the words absolutely perfect.  Sometimes I leave some of them out and have to try two or three times to get where I am going.  You and I, our architecture and choir and best intentions, donít force God to be present or to do our bidding as though we could vote that in convention.  But as we gather in Jesusí name we will see and hear and feel God.  And thatís what I want, whether I am scared or certain or searching.  So, we are in the right place for a new year. Amen.

Copyright © 2008 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.
http://www.nhcc.net/sermons/Sermon20080907.htm
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Parent page ] Sermon "Christmas Eve" ] Sermon "Sacred Vessels" ] Sermon "No System to Save" ] Sermon "Entitled to be Thankful" ] Sermon "Welcome Food" ] Sermon "Waking Devotion" ] Sermon "Sitting at the Welcome Table" ] Sermon "Table Manners" ] Sermon "Speaking of God" ] Sermon "Singing New Songs" ] Sermon "Prepare the Way" ] Sermon "Here-ing God" ] Sermon "The Possibility of Possibility" ] Sermon "Sweet Creations" ] Sermon "Not at All Dead" ] Sermon "March for Life" ] Sermon "Planning, Praising and Pondering Palms" ] Sermon "Imagination, Dreams, and Vision" ] Sermon "Following the Magi" ] Sermon "Pushing Christmas" ] Sermon "Forecasts" ] Sermon "Ready for Christmas" ] Sermon "God in the Middle" ] Sermon "The Days to Come, the One to Come" ] Sermon "Earthly Healing" ] Sermon "Digesting Communion" ] Sermon "The Change of Prayer" ] Sermon "Unbreakable Body" ] Sermon "Seeing Clearly" ] [ Sermon "Right for Present" ] Sermon "In Memory of Hope" ] Sermon "These Baptisms are Killing Us" ] Sermon "Wanting Prayer" ] Sermon "Last Minute Gifts" ] Sermon "Praying Well = Praying Much" ] Sermon "Peace Repent, Peace Remember" ] Sermon "Choosing Church" ] Sermon "A Model Church" ] Sermon "The Empire Struck Back" ] Sermon "Love is Patient and Primary" ] Sermon "Manifestations" ] Sermon "The Green Grace of God" ] Sermon "Signs of Sacred Things" ] Sermon "A Deal with the Future" ] Sermon "With God in Death; with Each Other in Dying" ] Sermon "Facing God's Miracle" ] Sermon "Finding All Three" ] Sermon "God as a Baby" ] Sermon "What Does It Mean" ] Sermon "Controlling Christmas" ] Sermon "Finding Jesus" ] Sermon "Katrina's New Covenant Call" ] Sermon "Elevate your Expectations" ] Sermon "See: the Healing" ] Sermon "Lifeless Chaos and Living Creation" ] Sermon "Rapt Gifts" ] Sermon "Welcome to Reality" ] Sermon "Blue State Blues" ] Sermon "Are we not entitled to thanks?" ] Sermon "Ancient Pieces of Peace" ] Sermon "Noticing Neighbors" ] Sermon "Easter" ] Sermon "Sin: Currently Tense" ] Sermon "Why Are You Angry?" ] Sermon "Anxiety over Sin" ] Sermon "Isn't Marriage Gay?" ] Sermon "A Marriage Grade in Heaven?" ] Sermon "Miracles:  Seeing More in our Midst" ] Sermon "Why are You in Churchl" ] Sermon "Remember your Baptism" ] Sermon "Every Day Spirituality" ] Sermon "The Cross and Joy of Love" ] Sermon "Welcome Back" ] Sermon "Living Together" ] Sermon "Transforming Destruction" ] Sermon "The Work of Healing" ] Sermon "Peace" ] Worship details ]

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