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Practicing Presence

Advent 4: Matthew 24:36-44

November 27, 2022

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

Good morning, St. Aidan’s. It’s truly wonderful to see you after my family and I have been away over the last several months in a long-planned time of sabbatical. We rested, we played, we did some traveling (together for recreation and in my own case for wider church and academic conferences as well), I cooked and baked, and I spent time on research and writing projects. Having never had a sabbatical before, and knowing I wasn’t doing a big travel-oriented pilgrimage, or one large, time-unifying project, I tried to practice presence. Presence with and to my family. Presence to God in the moment, even if that moment was sometimes oriented toward the past (through historical research). Presence took the form of listening, of looking, of seeking to be grounded and open in the midst of the routines – cooking, drop-offs and pick-ups, walks, reading, writing—and in the midst of the less routine or unexpected.

I didn’t have this specifically in mind along the way, but it strikes me now that in my own way I was trying to follow the advice of the seventeenth century French Carmelite monk known as Brother Lawrence. Years ago, my spiritual director recommended that I read a small collection of letters from and about him. She was convinced that I could stand to benefit from his call not to get overly caught up in the methods of prayer, not to feel embarrassed about a mind wandering while seeking to fix itself on God, not to worry about whether I’d somehow fallen into a detour in my life with God – guilt about falling short often separates us more from God than the original shortcoming itself. The point for Brother Lawrence is to practice God’s presence, not simply in set times of prayer but in any and all things. Such practice is to “keep ourselves in [God’s] holy presence” whether by meditation, by asking for God’s grace in the midst of the mundane or of difficulty, to become so habituated to the reality of God with us in all circumstances, that the divine presence is “rendered natural to us.”[1] Apparently Brother Lawrence was so saturated by that presence that even in the chaos of the kitchen – where he served as cook for his monastery – he was observed as “never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even, uninterrupted composure and tranquility of spirit.”[2]

Quite the demeanor to aspire to upon one’s return from sabbatical!

Even if we can’t quite imagine being able to maintain such calm amid whatever chaos our lives may deliver to us, a call to practice God’s presence strikes me as especially fitting for this Advent moment and its gospel passage. And although here at St. Aidan’s you have been making your way through this holy hinge season for three weeks already, today marks a shift into a different Advent gear with its step into the gospel of Matthew. Now with all the churches that follow the schedule of readings known as the Revised Common Lectionary, we turn to this most well-known of the four canonical gospels. Matthew immediately issues a call to alertness. The Parousia, the coming, the arrival of the Son of Humanity is at hand. Just prior to our passage Jesus had called his hearers to imagine a fig tree, to recall how by observing its leaves you can anticipate the approach of summer. Similarly, God’s own nearness, like the turning of a season, is approaching with great intensity, Jesus says. Watch for it. Stay alert. “Heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away,” he reassures (Matt 32:35).[3]

As our passage begins, the ability to truly perceive the coming of the Son of Humanity is rendered less clear. It seems to require unmatched alertness, a refusal to fall asleep. Yet rather than getting caught up in the sense of doom – looking in the wrong direction or failing to stay awake (like so many disciples….) – what if we direct our focus on the call to alertness as a continuing prompt, an invitation to deeper awareness? What if with Brother Lawrence we hear the intensity of the summons and welcome it calmly, with openness, with commitment to truth, with deep abiding, infinitely abundant love? “Lift up your heart to [God] even at your meals and when you are in company,” Brother Lawrence says, “the least little remembrance will always be acceptable to [God]. You need not cry very loud; [God] is nearer to us than we think.” He describes us as called to “make an oratory of our heart,” from where we can always, at any time, at all times be in “converse with” God, something of which everyone is capable, he says: “some more, some less. [God] knows what we can do. Let us begin, then.”[4]

St. Aidan’s friends, we have begun again and again. You did so long before I got here and today, almost six years to the day after my first Sunday with you in 2016, we step into a further chapter of our ministry together, continuing and new. You have been on a journey these last four months, just as I have. You have carefully discerned new steps to be present to one another in person and on Zoom in the context of a changing pandemic. You have continued in the Vital and Thriving cohort. You have carried out a stewardship campaign that culminates today with the in-gathering of pledge cards. I look forward to learning more about your journey, and as when I first arrived, I invite you to sign up for a time to check in and update me, as you would like. I have put sign-up sheets at the door, and I will create more as needed.

I also look forward to sharing stories of my journey these last several months. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one.

One of the questions we wondered about when our family began this time was what we would do on Sunday mornings. Where would we go to church? There were a couple of Sundays at the beginning of sabbatical when I attended the church of the Tahoe Meadows softball field… (though we did attend St. John’s in the Wilderness in Nevada one Sunday). But when we returned to the Bay Area near the end of August, we began a kind of pilgrimage. Instead of going to any one church for the duration, we visited a different congregation each week. All visits were in person except for one via Zoom the Sunday it rained in September. All were in the morning except the day we attended Grace Cathedral’s evening service after watching the 10 AM 49ers game.... From size and communal makeup to digital and in-person choices, to communion distribution, to musical and liturgical style, the similarities and differences we encountered were varied and fascinating. But so too was a certain through-line that Kateri noticed and pointed out along the way. Totally unexpectedly, at least to me, almost every church we visited sang the doxology at the Offertory as the gifts were brought to the altar—the tune “Old Hundredth,” usually with the verse that begins “praise God from whom all blessings flow.” Our 10 AM service is singing it today, in fact. Experienced over and over again, yet conveyed in ways formal and informal, there was something deeply moving about this shared practice. God’s abundant presence was praised and embraced. Everywhere we went, this simple tune signaled to us God’s present, abundant blessing. Grace flowed.

About a month ago, the night before we went to Holy Child and St. Martin’s in Daly City, we looked at their online booklet and noted that once again the doxology was in it. But when the moment arrived the next morning, we startled slightly when from somewhere to our right, a trumpet coughed softly to life. We turned to gape across the aisle as an unassuming man in a long trench coat in the pew parallel to us nonchalantly, almost surreptitiously, began playing the doxology. I can’t recall if anyone sang with him (including us in our astonishment). It may have been a solo. Upon reflection, I was reminded of Kateri’s and my original, shared home parish in Somerville, Massachusetts, where you could be singing a hymn accompanied by the organ, but also swear that you detected the soft sound of the harmonica —coming from where exactly? You’d turn around and look in the last row where a small man in an old suit, a longstanding usher and elder of the congregation, would be standing there, his hand disappearing in his coat pocket. You’d pivot back and return to singing, only to hear the harmonica again! Finally, one day I saw him from the side, slyly playing along as we sang. The trumpet doxologist in Daly City played in that same quirky, homemade spirit, one that we very much exude here in this joyful community of the Spirit. I couldn’t help but think of St. Aidan’s, open to the unexpected inbreaking of the Holy One, practicing the in-coming presence of God, whether hovering in our peripheral vision, sneaking up on our ears in unexpected tones, or in the ebullient form of a choir, a meal, a marimba, a bell, a dog, a laugh.

The Son of Humanity draws near, calling us to alert expectation. God is approaching, arriving in astonishing abundance, with abiding love, calling us to practice divine presence together. How might this emerging chapter call us into that practice anew? It’s so good to be home. As Brother Lawrence has said: Let us begin.

[1] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement Publications), 22 [2] The Practice of the Presence of God, 20. [3] Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 273. [4] The Practice of the Presence of God, 29.

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