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
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
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. 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.