Sermon for September 27, 2020
Text: Hebrews 10:23-25
When we were meeting in-person, gathering to “do church,” I interpreted the membership promise to “support the church with one’s presence” to mean showing up for worship and small group participation. The pandemic shelter in place order has caused me to re-think what “showing up” means. How do we show up for one another when we cannot safely gather, or, in some cases, cannot even leave our homes? How do we “show up” when access to technology — Zoom, for instance — is not equal?
Supporting with our presence can still mean the virtual equivalent of coming to worship and small groups — leading us to count the “number of views” instead of “butts in the pews.” It can mean making the effort to learn and use the technology that is available. I know plenty of folks who, in order to “show up” for their children or grandchildren, to be a part of their lives, have dared to learn how to use some technology that was new to them. This might have been the reason you got a computer or cellphone, learned how to text, use a smartphone, joined Facebook, tried Skype or some other form of video calling. Consider that technology can also be a tool for “showing up” for your family of faith. Use it to “be there for each other,” to help break through the isolation that another might be feeling. It is not lost on me that “connection” language is used regarding these technologies.
“Presence” is also about “attention.” We won’t make a connection if we don’t make an effort to stay engaged with the world, if we “check out.”
Self-centeredness is, for a majority of us, our default orientation. In a recent “dismantling racism town hall,” an African-American scholar on the panel asserted that “centeredness” is a key characteristic of whiteness — and that’s something I’ve been pondering. With “centeredness” comes the ability to “check out,” to be fiercely independent, to value being alone, going it on one’s own. All of this is antithetical to Christian practice. The message of the Bible is that we were not made to go it alone; we were made for each other. We are not the center of our own existence; God is the center of existence. Centeredness, and its values of control, possession and mastery, are both illusion and sin. They dehumanize us and cause us to dehumanize others.
Supporting with our presence means not only paying attention to others in the family of faith, it means paying attention, taking notice, recognizing the humanity of our neighbors. We may not physically leave our homes, but we can still engage in this practice of attention by keeping up on local news and noticing the struggles of our neighbors.
Not seeing our neighbors happens when I hear comments like “I don’t see color.” Not seeing our neighbors happens when we ignore the homeless person on the side of the road. Not seeing our neighbors happens when we refuse to believe stories of police brutality and racial profiling. Not seeing our neighbors happens when we go about our lives “politely” (or so we say to ourselves) noticing-but-not-acknowledging that people all around us are struggling financially, or that they are in pain. We, in our centeredness, have carefully trained our eyes not to see.
Another thing said in that town hall, by another theologian, that stuck with me, was about violence. She was talking about our need to repent of violence, and said something about “erasing people from the face of the earth,” when I made a connection to erasing people from our minds, and I thought of the oft-heard phrase, “I don’t see color.” And I realized that this is a form of violence, this “not seeing” people, acting as if they don’t exist, or as if we don’t want them to exist — acting as if they don’t matter. We resist and counteract this mental form of violence by paying attention. The very act of listening is a form of healing this violence.
Presence, attention, mindfulness — these are all related. It is difficult work. It is about leaning into and holding the pain of others.
Being present to pain is hard. But it would be revolutionary if we could accomplish this. A church, a community of faith, that would really be present could change the world.
I would like you to imagine the Church (not the building, mind you, but the community of faith) as a big container. Our task, what we are doing when we “support the church with our presence,” is holding the sides of that container for the pain and struggle of the world — the injustices, the fears, the worries. We hold up our side of the container, do our part, when we reach out in care for a Christian brother or sister who is going through a hard time, when we love each other. But our container is bigger than that, too; the container expands to hold the pain and struggle of the neighbor down the street whom we think we don’t see, or whom we try not to see, the one we think is beyond our realm of responsibility. The container expands to include the pain and struggle of our neighbors in other corners of the world. The container expands to include the pain and struggle of other beings.
Or try on another metaphor, if you will: when we were dating, Albert and I listened, together, to a number of talks by relationship coach Alison Armstrong. One of her unique turns of phrase has made it into our regular conversation. If you were a fly on the wall in our house, you would frequently hear one of us say that “the house is talking to me,” or “the floor is talking to me,” or “the bathroom or the kitchen is talking to me.” What we mean by this is that we have noticed that something is getting cluttered or dirty; it needs our attention. Now, we both have about the same tolerance for dust and clutter — which is probably a good thing for our relationship. We both are willing to let some household chores slide for a day or two when other matters rise in importance. When one of us announces, “the floor is talking to me,” we are stating our intention to take care of that particular cleaning task, rather than asking our partner to attend to it.
Sometimes we ignore the “voices” that come from the various corners of our home. Attentiveness — both to the house, and to our care for one another — enables us to listen. Because we care about the quality of our life together, we “listen” to the house, and we consider our tasks of cleaning up a way of expressing our love and respect for each other.
In the same way, the world is talking to all of us. The needs of the vulnerable, the struggles that people are experiencing, the places where there is injustice perpetrated — these things cry out to us. In our centeredness, our privilege, our comfort, we can ignore those voices — and many of us have grown accustomed to not hearing. Being present to the world, practicing attentiveness, opens our ears and our hearts again. Listening to the voices of our hurting world and responding out of love and respect for life, is a gift of our “presence” to the kingdom of God.
It seems to me that the pandemic has produced two types of people: those who are bored out of their skulls, and those who are feeling the crushing weight of responsibility of caring for others. Both types of people are feeling terribly isolated, with long days of not seeing or connecting with other people, or long days of work, multitasking, and struggling with technology. Some folks are experiencing a mix of both. The sense of isolation is there for all of them.
Two people I connected with this week spoke of this isolation in different ways as they described their observations being out in public. “Everyone is in their own little bubble,” one said, as she noticed people’s behavior behind the wheels of their cars. “No one talks to anyone,” said another, commenting on masked shoppers in the grocery store.
The condition of this coronavirus has combined in an insidious way with our propensity to centeredness to produce a disease of isolation that is eating away at our souls.
At the beginning of worship I say to first-time worshippers: “Your presence is your gift to us.” The gift of presence can break us out of this, my friends. Be present — to others. Be present — to the gift of this moment. Be present to the world. Perhaps we might, in so doing, be able to heal one another, and, in some measure, share the burdens we are bearing. Let your presence be your gift, and let us see it change the world. Amen.