“Presence” by Ken Burton

June 2, 2019

The Seventh Sunday of Easter

Please pray with me for a moment.

Holy One, let the words of my mouth and the ideas they express make sense in the minds and hearts of my hearers. Beyond this, dear loving God, may these words strengthen our connection with you and with each other and support us as we seek to love and serve your broken world.  Amen.

As I suggested in my prayer, my sermon this morning is about connection, connection with God, with one another, and with our hurting world. It is about one specific form of connection, the one known as presence. Peter mentioned it this morning in his offering in our gathering circle about the mocking bird behind his porch. Our first hymn this morning reminded us that “we need your living presence, O Christ of Galilee, a presence that revives us and sets our spirits free.”

This word, “presence,” like so many in our dear English language, has many meanings. For example, Google tells me that “Presence is a free app that transforms your spare Android and iOS smartphones and tablets into a free Wi-Fi security camera and motion detector.” OK, I know that this is helpful in some contexts, but here it serves mainly to illustrate the rich variety of meanings evoked by this word, “presence”.

This morning I propose an inductive definition of presence rather than a deductive one; that is, I am not going to suggest a dictionary type definition to compete with Google’s, tempting as that is, but rather to offer several examples of presence which I believe will be more helpful in working with the term in our context.

My first example comes from a sermon that I offered years ago here at Seekers. The sermon was called “Radiance”, and you can find in by searching on “radiance” in the Sermons section under the Worship tab of the Seekers website. In that I described the only direct and immediate experience I have ever had of God’s surrounding, loving presence. There was no visual component to this experience, but there was also no question in my mind about what was happening: my ever-loving, ever-faithful divine parent was reaching out to a hurting and confused Ken. Note that a couple of sentences back, the word “presence” slipped into my description almost unnoticed. That’s because my awareness of God in that setting was so strong, so powerful that “presence” was not enough. So in that sermon I called it “radiance,” which was a bit more accurate, and it helped that I was preaching on Transfiguration Sunday. But the truth is that this experience changed the direction of my life, and it cannot be described, at least not be me, in words that convey its full impact. Presence, indeed.

I am reminded of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. The Christian persecutor then known as Saul, was stunned and blinded, but also his heart was open to the reality of the risen Christ and he became Paul, the Apostle. For the details of this one, see the ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.  I do not intend to compare my experience to that of one of the First Century founders of the Christian church but rather to suggest that they both illustrate a particular kind of presence, one which includes a very direct and immediate experience of the Holy One and which can have transformative power.

I have learned that it’s hard to go wrong when you quote yourself. Although it may seem a bit inflated, at least you are not going to be accused of misquoting or misusing your source. So I was reviewing some of the prayers that I have offered as liturgist and noticed the following:

From a Lenten prayer,

For even as we walk with Jesus in the days ahead,

walk with him through his betrayal, agony and death,

we celebrate the Presence of the already Risen Christ

at work among us and within us.

And later on:

Holy One make us each keenly aware of your Presence

as we worship together this Palm Sunday,

for this is certainly the day that you have made

and we would rejoice and be glad in it.

Both of these prayer fragments are asking for Christ’s presence here, in this room, right now as the Seekers community is gathered for worship. Although they contain personal references, they are not really about the person offering the prayer but focus on the community of faith gathered to hear it, and in doing so, to experience the living Christ moving among us, binding us together in that fabulous company we call the Body of Christ. In this context, Ann Dean, a member of the Dayspring Retreat Mission Group, writing in inward/outward, suggests “that it is our communal listening and mutual belonging that will fortify our commitment to faith, hope and love”. [Emphasis supplied.] Communal listening. Mutual belonging. These are additional components of presence that take us beyond the personal experience, important as that is, and into the realm of shared faith and service. Presence, indeed.

Then there are those moments when presence grabs us in ways that simply defy speech, in English or any other language. Deborah Sokolove’s painting on the altar this morning is, for me, one of those moments. It is no accident that she calls it “Presence”. Now it may be that Deborah, or another whose verbal skills are more closely linked to aesthetic sensibility than are mine, could express in words what it is in this painting that contributes to our developing inductive sense of presence, but you’re not going to find that in this sermon. All I can do is point and suggest that you take a closer look. Going forward, this piece will hang prominently on the wall in my home, an ever-present reminder. Presence, indeed.

Finally, presence is how healing happens. Presence is how healing happens. Most of you know that Jane Engle, my dear wife of fifteen years, took her own life eighteen months ago. Three days later was a Sunday, and I was here at Seekers, at least in body. I was sitting on a bench in the back during the service. A member of this community, who shall remain anonymous to avoid embarrassment, came and sat beside me, but not exactly beside me, but more like against me. The right side of this Seeker’s body was against the left side of mine as we sat there for most of the service. We shared a few words, but they seemed of minor significance. Many others in this community and elsewhere reached out to me in different ways in those difficult days following Jane’s death, and in some cases, that continues. But nothing that anyone did was as comforting, as reassuring, or indeed as healing as the presence of that Seeker’s body against mine during the service. Presence, indeed.

I love Jesse Palidofsky’s music and really regret that he is no longer part of Seekers. One of the songs on his “Dancing Toward the Light” album is called “Lift Me Up”, and we’ll hear it during the Offertory. In it Jesse sings of how with “a simple human touch…I’ll feel less alone”. He asks that we ”be there when my heart is weeping” and “hold me when there’s nothing to say”. Jesse says that with your simple presence, you can “show a glimpse of that eternal love.” And there’s that word again. It’s about “presence” showing a glimpse of God’s love, making clear what it means for us to live in Christ and for Christ to live in us. And that, my dear friends, is how the wounds of the spirit, the lesions of the heart begin to heal. So, as Jesse sings, “Thank you for the healing hand; thank you for the tender touch,” I add thank you for your presence as offered in that body language that got me started on the road to recovery from a devastating loss on that Sunday in December, 2017. And yes, again, presence, indeed

So “presence” is about our sense of God within ourselves and among us in community. “Presence” is about being captured by a work of art or a moment in time, about being taken to a new level of consciousness or a new understanding. “Presence” is about the healing touch, the body language of the Spirit.

And thus we may say with John of Patmos, as he concludes his Revelation, “The One who gives this testimony says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon!’” Coming soon, for sure, for we know by his presence, he is already here!     Amen.

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