September 25, 2016 – Presence

Pentecost 19   September 25, 2016   Psalm 84, Hebrews 10:19-25, Romans 12:1-2, Acts 2:42-47          Presence


A wife calls her husband, who is still in bed – “Time to get up, get ready for church, dear.” But the husband stays in bed, and hollers back, “I don’t want to go to church today. I don’t feel like going to church. They don’t like me. And I don’t like the sermons.” His wife cajoles him, “Come on honey, you know it’s important to be in church. You need church, your family needs you there with us… And the church likes you just fine… And the sermons usually aren’t as bad as you think…”

But the husband isn’t getting up. He keeps saying, “I don’t want to go.” Till finally when his wife won’t give up, he says, “Give me two good reasons why I should go.” His wife says, “Well – it is Sunday morning. And you are the pastor.”

That story, for the record, is not about me… At least not on Sundays. I love church. Love worship. Love being part of our parish and each of our two churches… Love our pumpkin patch and all our outreach activities… I actually love most of what we do… (It’s only once in a great while meetings on a Monday… that I’m sometimes just a little less eager to be present for…)

And we are talking about being present today. Just as we’ve sung – Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place – so surely also – in our membership vows we pledge to be present for God – through our prayers – our presence – our gifts – our service – and our witness. Today we’re in week two of our series exploring the promises we make in being part of this church. We’re talking about our pledge to be present for God and one another – in the life, work, and witness of the church.

Now of course I pray every day for the church, asking God to increase our participation in all the life of the church…

But.. It wasn’t always this way. When I was young our family didn’t go to church, except briefly, part of one year… And there were times, as a younger adult, even after I became a Christian, when I wasn’t so sure about the church. There was a time when I stayed away from church more than five years. I was young, a bit idealistic, and overly critical of others, including churches that didn’t seem to measure up to my expectations…

When I finally began to attend church again, I did some church hopping…  And found… not every church I visited had much visible resemblance to the church we see in our last reading from the book of Acts. (There wasn’t a whole lot of awe and wonder on display…)

But pretty soon, by grace, I found a small Methodist church, near where I lived, with a good pastor, a welcoming congregation… And when I began worshiping there regularly I learned there were people doing many of these book of Acts practices we’ve just read about… Often a bit under the radar – but joy, awe and wonder began to be visible for me in the life of the church… (Ever since I’ve been part of the church, no turning back… Aware, now of my own role in the failings of the church… Yet encouraged to keep pressing on towards the goal of beloved community in Christ we hear of in our readings today…)

Given my own past experience, I’m aware of many of the reasons people don’t attend church… As we know, church attendance in America’s is way down from previous decades and still dropping. When pollsters ask people about their religious preference, the category with the largest increase in the past decade is the so-called ‘Nones.’ (Not n-u-n-s nuns– but n-o-n-e-s nones – as in none-of-the- above.)

Though pollsters note– some of what we’re seeing in these polls is probably people who were none-of-the-above all along, but didn’t want to say so – now feeling safe to self-disclose. Reading Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Cape Cod (written in the 1850’s) one day at the beach in Eastham, here was Henry, talking about Eastham’s town history (quote): “In 1665 the Court [the legislature] passed a law to inflict corporal punishment on all persons… who denied the Scriptures…”

“It was also voted by the town, that all persons who should stand out of the meeting-house during the time of divine service [that would be Sunday church] should be set in the stocks.”  Thoreau comments with more than a little irony: “It behooved such a town to see that sitting in the meeting-house was nothing akin to sitting in the stocks – lest the penalty of obedience to the law – might be [considered] greater than that of disobedience.”

All of us (I’m pretty sure, at least over a certain age of consent) are here of our own accord. I thank God for all of you who are here, without compulsion (other than perhaps the coaxing of the Holy Spirit) who don’t need to be compelled (or heavily guilt-tripped) into coming to church. I know many of you are constantly re-committing to the promise to honor God with our presence on a regular basis, because you’ve obviously experienced some of what the psalmist speaks of in Psalm 84, that we’ve read together today – “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!… My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God…” and…

“at your altars even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young…”

We know the house of God is big as all creation. No building can ever contain the presence of the Lord. Yet we also know God is made known to us uniquely in our congregational worship, fellowship, service and outreach. Congregational worship is our proper response to Christ’s resurrection.

Acts, indeed all the bible, is also the story of God working through God’s whole people, much more than through individuals… When scripture’s focus appears to be focused on individuals like Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and his family, King David, and the apostles – their importance is primarily in how they serve as prototypes of faith for us… Even Jesus, whom Hebrews calls “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” is also called (1st Corinthians 15) “the firstborn of those who have died” – who now, because of Christ, will live. Knowing we have life without end in Christ, life together in his presence should be enough to keep us replenished in joy…

Yet – full disclosure– we also know Church is not much like Disneyland or McDonald’s. Church, like Jesus, like salvation, isn’t to be confused with light entertainment nor our personal preferences. Life in Christ is not always a barrel of fun. Some of us may have days when we need strong encouragement from family, friends, and the Holy Spirit to get us to church on time…

Which is one of the many reasons we do church together. Because Jesus says to. Because Jesus tells us (in the closing verses of Matthew’s gospel) to make disciples for him of all nations – teaching them to do all he has commanded us, till he returns. Salvation, according to Jesus, is never just for our personal enjoyment. Salvation is a gift for sharing with those who don’t yet know God or Jesus.

So Jesus is always asking us to consider – how can we best encourage and support those who may want to give church a try – for the first time or the first time in a long time? How are we to be contagiously Christian?

“Showing up is half the battle,” it’s often said. The ancient philosopher Woody Allen has even said “80% of success is showing up.” Whatever the percentage – and whether we’re talking success in the workplace, making friends, being church together, or life in general – showing up is, at a very minimum, absolutely necessary… And…

Showing up in person, bodily, heart and mind transformed by the Holy Spirit, ready, willing to participate in the life of Christ’s church… might even be getting close to 100% of the battle.

Showing up bodily is the beginning of wisdom. The beginning of life in Christ. Present yourself bodily as living sacrifice. This is our spiritual worship. Don’t be conformed to the world’s ways of thinking. Be transformed in the renewing of our hearts and minds in Christ – so we will be able to know the will of God.

We’re saved by grace alone, not by church attendance. But if we think we’re saved but not committed to regular participation in the life of the church – it would be a good idea to check our self against the word of God in scripture… We’re fooling ourselves if we think we can live our faith apart from the church, which, even with all our human faults and failings, is still clearly named in scripture as Christ’s main means for reaching all who can ever be reached…

(Of course anyone unable to be present physically is a special case. We try to help them by broadcasting our worship on Bourne community access cable tv, which can also be watched online, anytime…And when I visit those who are home bound and in nursing homes – how often they express their wish they could be here with us…)

I’m not out to stir up guilt – at least not among those here today. Just to remind us all, me included – that when Jesus sets the bar high in his expectations for us, his church – its because he has called us to a high calling – and commanded us to keep reaching out – searching, seeking, working together to help him bring hope, salvation and healing to all, in love, with his gospel. He has asked us to  keep asking Him and one another – are we doing all we can to make known the love of God in Christ? Are we doing all we can to help others know the grace, peace, and joy we share in Christ?

And again and yet again I’m reminded – living ever more deeply into these questions Jesus gives us is yet another reason we need to stick together – connected in the Spirit, held together in the company of our living God every day.

Giving thanks and praise to God. Enjoying God’s gracious presence… and each other’s good company, together.  Singing together a new song to God…

Thanks be to God. Amen.