Today we continue our series on the vows we take as members, to “faithfully participate in its ministries by your prayers, your presence, your gifts and your service.” Last week we talked about prayer, what prayer is and how to do it. Today we talk about presence. When you became a member or will become a member, you vowed to be faithful by your presence, but what does that mean?
Presence is being here. It means that you promised that you will show up. That’s it, it is that simple. It is simple but I know it is a hard concept for many people to grasp. Let me give you some figures. Between January and May we averaged 87 people a Sunday. That is a 3% increase over our average for 2007. During the months of June through August our average was 68 people here on a Sunday. That is a 21% decrease over the summer months. Now I am not calling people out, please do not think I am point fingers today but the point I am making is during the summer, when school is out, it is harder to pull one’s self out of bed and make the journey to church. Instead many, those who aren’t on vacation, decide to attend Saint Holy Mattress because Rev. Pillow promises to deliver a refreshing sermon.
Christ UMC in Bethel Park, PA has all their members understand a little further what their membership vows mean. They have typed out what each vow means and what it would look like to live it out. They say that when you promise to be faithful by your prayers that means, “You are promising to be in prayer regularly for the ministry and mission of Christ Church as well as its members.” When it comes to your presence, they say, “You are promising to be in church every week unless prevented by illness or some other unavoidable situation.” How does that hit you? Do you agree with that statement or are they stepping on your toes?
In all the churches I have been associated with over the years I have never seen that in writing anywhere. Memorial UMC, where I was confirmed and welcomed into the church as a member, I was asked that question but I never knew it meant to attend church weekly “unless prevented by illness or some other unavoidable situation.” I remember Sunday’s growing up, after confirmation that I prayed to God that my parents wouldn’t feel well on Sunday mornings so I wouldn’t have to go to church. The truth is though when you say you will be faithful by your presence it means you are promising to show up.
When the Charlotte District Superintendent called me in April of 2007 and gave me the stats on the church I would be serving next, I have to say I was impressed with the numbers. We have, roughly, 185 on role and average 84 on a Sunday. That means 45% of the people on our membership roll show up each Sunday. That is wonderful. I served a church that had 607 people on roll and 219 at worship, which means 36% of their members show up each week. At one of the largest church in our conference, they have 4719 members with an average attendance at their weekly worship services of 1298, which means 27% of their members show up each week. As you can tell we are doing pretty well in our percentages but that still means that on average the majority of our members, 55% aren’t here to worship. Plus our average attendance does count those who are doing missionary work by attending here regularly but are members of other denominations.
Why is showing up to church so important though? Is it to make me feel better? So I have a larger crowd to preach to? As I looked at Christ UMC’s not only informs people on what it means to be a member but I noticed that they also told them what they receive in return for making their vows. It says, in return the church, helps you grow in faith, supports your family, provides fellowship, listens during crisis, stands with you in difficult situations and will be there to celebrate your blessings in life. They promise to be church.
The text I read is the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus. If you would rank the events of Jesus Christ as the most important and most awe inspiring, you would have at number #1 the resurrection, #2 the crucifixion, and #3 the transfiguration. This event is that important. To give you the reader digest version of why it is important it is because it is here that human beings see the divine side of Christ. Upon the mountain, Peter, James and John, witnessed Jesus’ face shine like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light. We believe Jesus is 100% God and 100% human. The disciples were always in touch with his 100% human side but this is the only time that they saw him in his 100% God mode.
Now there were only three disciples invited up to see this. That means nine of them were left on the bottom of the mountain. Of the three that went up there two were amazed to the point that they were speechless. The only thing we know is that after the voice of God says “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” They fall down on the ground terrified. Peter is the only person who chimes in with what he thinks is an impressive idea. He says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” During Peter’s extreme makeover idea, God, the Father, shows up and speaks.
Peter, in this holiest of holies moment, is really not present. James and John are more present in the moment than Peter. They are gob-smacked by the awesomeness of God that just soak it in. Peter, always looking for the angle, attempts to through up some huts. He misses the point of the experience. The point of the experience isn’t to stay there forever. It is to experience Christ and then go back down the mountain. Christ needed witnesses in order for the truth to be told after his resurrection and he chose these three out of the twelve. Two out of the three were able to be present enough to soak it in.
I guess I should send this sermon out on the phone tree because you all here are really not the ones I should be talking to. I guess I am trying to reach the 55% who are at home right now, still in their pajamas, drinking their coffee and reading the paper. Instead of doing that, I am going to send you out in order to tell them. Tell them that church is a lot like the mountain where the transfiguration happened. God uses worship to transform lives, to heal wounded souls, to renew hope, to shape decisions, to provoke change, to inspire compassion and to bind people together. It is through Bible studies, times of fellowship together and yes, even committee meetings, that God deepens our understanding and relationship with Christ and transforms lives as disciples grow. It is within the Body of Christ, when make yourself completely present, that you can experience God pardoning sins, restoring relationships and changing lives. Doesn’t that sound like things you want to be apart of.
The 7th anniversary of 9-11 was this past week. Thursday I read up on some people’s experiences of that day, the ones that were there. I read about one woman who stepped out of her office building, one block away from the towers, to get a better look at what was happening. When she did the first tower fell and soon she found herself trying to find fresh air to breath. She eventually climbed up scaffolding and into a bathroom where she shared the water in the toilet with another man in order to clean her throat enough to catch her breath. Each year she tells her story by writing it down and each year the title changes and different memories come back.
There are places in history where we remember where we were. I will always remember being in my black church studies class at Duke when someone came running down the hall to tell us what was happening on September 11, 2001. There are many of you who probably know where you were when Kennedy was shot, or Martin Luther King, or when they walked on the moon for the first time, or when they said the war was over.
Do you remember where you were when you realized that God forgave you of your sins? Do you remember where you were when Easter became real to you? Do you remember where you were when the Holy Spirit made your hair stand up as you sang Silent Night by candle light? Do you remember when you asked someone to pray for you because of the crisis you were going through and when they laid hands on you and prayed you felt God’s release? Do you remember where you were when you said goodbye to a loved one, a friend, and you sent them on to be with cloud of witnesses in the Church eternal? Do you remember where you were when you tasted the communion elements and for the first time the true meaning of the Eucharist set in?
If you do remember, I bet it was within the walls of this church or in the presence of your fellow church members. You remember because you made your whole self present in that moment. You remember because when life was sucking the life out of you, you made an effort to come to church and let the church be church for you. That is only possible when you make yourself present and that is why it is a vow of membership.
We ask you to be faithful in your presence because we want to be church for you and we want you to be church for others. Christ needed witnesses on that mountain top and God needs witnesses here. God wants you to come to Trinity on a regular basis in order for you to go out into the world and proclaim what he is doing here. Presence is essential to church because people is who makes us up. You can knock down the building but when the people of God gather, when they are present and accounted for, there is Church.
And all God’s people said…