I Promise: Presence

This Sunday, October 11, was the second Sunday of our 2020 Stewardship Emphasis for the Open Door Churches. Our theme this year, I Promise, is a direct reference to the Vows of Membership in the United Methodist Church: “Do you promise to uphold the ministries of the church through your Prayers, your Presence, your Gifts, your Service, and your Witness?” At a deeper level, however, I Promise is a series of reflections about our covenant with God, both individually and collectively.

Often, we think that membership is about privilege—what it offers us—but in the Methodist tradition, membership is about responsibility and commitment—what we can offer to God. When I talk to prospective members about the possibility of joining the church, I talk to them about these Vows and the expectations that membership brings. I almost always tell them, “Membership isn’t the entry point for becoming part of the church, it’s the final step of formalizing the covenant you’re making.” In other words, by the time someone joins the church, they should already be practicing the spiritual disciplines that are the basis for each of the five vows.

As members of the UMC, we make a commitment to be present in worship with the community of believers as a central commitment of our time. Just as a commitment to the regular discipline of prayer begins to orient our spiritual lives around our relationship to God, our regular presence in worship begins to help us orient our stewardship of time around our relationship to God. The Vow of Presence means, in other words, “If I have a choice to be present in worship, I will be.” There are some for whom this is not a choice—either their health or a responsibility to their vocation or family requires them to be absent when the community gathers. For those of us who have the choice between attending worship and some other activity, however, this vow leads us to choose worship as our central commitment and all other use of our time is arranged around this commitment. It is our public proclamation of our willingness to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy,” an injunction included not only as a Commandment of God but as a central aspect of those who claim faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Sunday—claimed as the Lord’s Day by the early church because it was the day of Jesus’s resurrection and often referred to as the “Christian Sabbath”—is the traditional day for Christian worship. Although that tradition has been normative throughout the history of Christianity, it is equally valid for Christians to seek another time to keep this vow of Presence. The key is not so much the day or time as it is a consistent, weekly participation in community worship if it is at all possible.

On the other hand, the Vow of Presence is not a one-way street. While we promise to be present as best we can, the church also promises to be present for us. If there’s anything we are learning from the separation we’re enduring because of the pandemic, it is that God is always calling us to find new ways to include more people in the worship life of the church, even as we strive diligently to create consistently meaningful worship experiences where the Church normally gathers. I’m pleased to say that the Open Door Churches have found innovative ways to share the possibility of being faithful in Presence over the past several months and we plan to continue emphasizing the importance of including more people even as we begin returning to in-person gatherings in the new year.

As I shared in worship on Sunday, the experience of worshiping in Virtual Space for an extended period of time has expanded my concept of Presence. I have begun to understand that being present has as much to do with being focused spiritually on the presence of God as it does with being physically present in a particular time and place. We are still exploring the possibilities of what that means, but I am already hopeful that the creativity we have had to employ in 2020 will continue to guide us in 2021 and beyond.

God, our Creator, did not stop creating after the Sixth Day. The practice of Sabbath, as it did for the Creator, prepares us for the ongoing work of seeking the good of all people.

I’m ready to get to work. How about you?

NEXT WEEK: “Gifts”

Grace and peace,
Pastor John Fleming

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