Presence


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My family and I recently went to a surprise birthday party for someone attaining the half century mark. On the way in my daughter asked me where the present was. I told her that sometimes adults do not give each other presents because there is, in the words of the folk singer David LaMotte, no present like time.

It is what we do with our time in the present tense that matters more than the presents. Indeed our presence becomes a gift when it is given fully and sincerely. Even so, there is still a time and place for gift giving and receiving. There is a time and place for hospitality.

Children are not the only ones who can see through the lie of saying, “Well, it’s the thought that counts, and I thought about getting you something really great – because you are totally worth it. But I didn’t because I couldn’t actually afford it, and I just never made it to the store.”

Of course, presents and presence are truly about priority and devotion. In many ways, priority and devotion are at the heart of our readings today.

I must admit finding these readings a little difficult to connect with at first because of the differences in culture they seem to represent. Mostly I am talking about Isaiah’s depiction of Israel as the wanton woman redeemed and restored by the husband’s choice and John’s description of Jesus’ tone with his mother. I also think the concept of spiritual gifts is a little outside of the box for those who believe we are truly self determined and totally independent.

But if we think about these readings in terms of priority and devotion, then it might move us to a different place. Even so, just because we live in a time when the Princess saves the Prince as often as he might save her, it would be wrong to dismiss the value of the words of the Prophet as archaic sexism.

The whole of Israel – an entire nation as well as a people of a certain ethnicity – had the identity of brokenness. They believed in the name, Forsaken, and it became them. And so God entered in and changed the narrative. No longer would they be known for their line of Kings. No longer would they be known only for their ancestry. Now they will be known as a people whom the Creator of all that is loves so much that God is even in a loving relationship with the ground they walk on!

That’s a new covenant, and it is reflected throughout the later part of the book of Isaiah. God is no longer simply bound to ancestry. God will now be bound by fidelity – by devotion and priority. God will now be bound in a new way that affects the loved and the lover. Even in societies and relationships where women are not thought of as equal partners with men, none can deny that each partner is affected by the other.

The marriage – the partnership – changes the identity of each person, even if only by the name of husband and wife and the weight they represent. Treva and I have been married 12 short years – yet I still find myself giggling over the fact that she’s my wife. I still find myself becoming re-defined and redeemed by her long suffering love.

And that is how it is with God’s love for the church. That’s how it is with this congregation. We have accepted names for ourselves: old church, small church, or used-to-be-a-big-church. We have felt broken. We have felt forsaken. Part of the narrative of this church is, “and then (fill in the blank) left us.” When I first got here I thought this was the “left-behindingest” church I’d ever seen.

But since I have been here, I have seen a shift. Maybe it just took me time to see it. Maybe it took you time to say it. Maybe, just maybe, we have together become open to the work of God’s Spirit in our midst. Maybe we have heard and seen that God is willing to be married to the church in such a way that allows the creation to affect the Creator. Maybe we have begun to see that our name is not “Broken” so much as it is “The Body of Christ, Broken for the World”.

Our sense of identity – whether new or renewed – comes from our sense of devotion and priority, and it inspires the same in others. Jesus demonstrated this for all in the wedding feast at Canna, but the weirdest thing about that is that he did not want to. It wasn’t time. But he was yet compelled by love. He was compelled by love, and he acted in a way that benefitted the host. Although his mother seemed to know what Jesus was capable of in the beginning – it was the disciples that believed in him as the presence of God in human flesh in the end.

I wonder where we are in this story (individually and collectively)? Are we Mary, goading Jesus to act and then making promises on his behalf and expecting him to fulfill them? Are we the empty vessels standing around expecting to be used to purify others? Are we the full jars holding the abundance of God’s grace and mercy and waiting to poor it out? Are we the servant, following orders without expectation? Are we the steward, surprised that something even better than what we have seen is yet to come?

In many ways I think we are all of the above, and – although I think our shared vision is crucial – I think God wants each of us to find our own place in this story. In fact, I think allowing space for that kind of discernment is what we do best as a congregation. 
Just look at the first line of our mission statement: We at First Presbyterian Church are seeking the wholeness we believe Almighty God, our Creator, promises through Jesus Christ, our Lord. 

“Seeking wholeness” is a way of life for us, and we expect God to offer it. 
Our mission statement follows with: Through our worship, study, and life together, we are finding God’s wholeness for ourselves and, guided by the Holy Spirit, seek to share it with our community and our world through prayer, service, outreach, music, and fellowship.

Wholeness is found in our life together and experienced in our individual lives. Or, in the words of Paul, “there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.

And that’s the beauty of it all. The sense of devotion and priority being spoken about in today’s passages is a mutual devotion and a mutual sense of priority between God and you and me and all of creation. The gifts that are being given in this great celebration of life that we are all a part of are from the giver of all things. What can we do but respond? What can we do but see the value in all of creation? What can we do but to recognize the gifts in each other, recognize the gifts God has given each of us, and work together to make our lives pour out the abundant joy that has filled every empty space like water and lifts the soul like no wine ever could!

Maybe you feel like that is impossible. Maybe it is just a bunch of pretty language and metaphor. If God wills it to bear fruit in your life, then it will. Either way, we are going to be working on the idea of openness to the activity of God’s Spirit into some more concrete terms in the coming months through the PC(USA)’s New Beginnings program. 
I know that we have done mission studies before, and there are parts of this one that will be similar. The goal of this process, however, is not to sell us a five step plan for becoming like some other congregation. The goal is to look deeply at who we are, where we are, and what God is calling us to do and become. No one is going to tell us what to do. We are going to discern God’s will together. It is a little scary to think about – and it should be!

The goal of the program is simple – to make a decision about what to do next in order to follow God faithfully. The process will involve three steps. First we’ll have a luncheon on February 3. Next we’ll have some members go to a training session so that they can come back and lead a series of small group discussions, and finally we’ll come together to review all of the information together before deciding what to do about it all. The Presbytery will be supplementing the program, so the cost to us is minimal. There will also be 21 other congregations in our presbytery we can lean on for support during this process.  On behalf of the Session, I want to invite you into this process whether you are a regular visitor or a long standing member, because – like Mary – I believe that I know a little bit about what Jesus is capable of. And I believe that – like the disciples – we will all come to a deeper faith in him in the end.

For now, rest assured that God holds you devotedly as a priority and only asks that you do the same in return. Marriage is like that – just that simple, and just that hard. Amen!
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