I was recently reading a sermon written by the Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor and there was an idea from the sermon that has stayed with me and seemed particularly relevant as I read our passage from acts for this morning. She was speaking about the times when we feel God is absent from our lives (which can be frequent), “You can’t know absence unless you have first known presence.” In other words, if we have never known God’s presence even if it was for but the briefest of moments, we would not be aware of God’s absence. Absence is painful only because we have known the presence of that which is now absent. It is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
We all know the truth of this when it comes to other people, particularly those people closest to us, our family. My children were two years old when I took my first long-distance, multi-night trip away from them. I went from Connecticut to Florida to visit my best friend and her wife on the occasion of my friend’s 50th birthday. We went to Disney World to celebrate. I had looked forward to the trip for months and was very excited. I wanted to see my friends and after two years of parenting young twins, I needed a break. I was excited until I actually left for the trip. I cried the entire drive to the airport. I pulled myself together for the flight, but had various crying spells throughout the trip. Who knew that the live show of Finding Nemo at Disney World would make a grown woman cry like a baby? I guess you shouldn’t take a mom separated from her young children to a show about a kid getting separated from his father. Five-year-olds stared at me. Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
You might not be a crier like me, but I’m sure at some point in your life you have felt the pain of the absence of someone whose presence meant everything in the world to you. It is a terrible feeling. It feels like you’ve lost a piece of yourself. You wonder if you will ever feel good again, or at least you feel like you won’t be whole and ok again until the person who is absent is present with you again. In short, you feel the pain of grief.
And Barbara Brown Taylor would argue, and I would agree, that this is both why we can tell when God is absent (or at least not present in a way that we can perceive). We know because we were once able to feel God’s presence. This is why the felt absence of God is so painful—God’s presence felt good—we want more of it. Without this presence we can feel incomplete, at sea, lost, alone. I would imagine that this is what Jesus’ friends are feeling as he ascends to heaven, when he leaves them to return to the Father.
I always picture Jesus’ friends standing there staring at where Jesus was with their mouths hanging open. Awe and wonder must have been some of what they were experiencing, but grief and the pain of absence must have been felt by them too. They had watched Jesus die a horrible and painful death and they had gone through all the emotions involved with that experience. He had miraculously returned to them, and they had experienced his bodily presence for 40 wonderful Jesus-filled days. And now just as suddenly as he had returned to their lives he leaves again, and this time apparently for good.
Yes, as Jesus goes, he promises that they will receive the Holy Spirit. But I can imagine that if I had been standing there that day I would have thought, “Holy Spirit. Holy Spirit. I don’t want the flipping Holy Spirit. I don’t even know what that is. I want Jesus.” They are so caught up in their shock and grief that it takes two men in white robes, code for angels, to shock them out of the state they are in. And what do they say to them? “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Or to put it another way, you won’t find Jesus by standing here staring at where you last saw him. Return to the world with each other if you want to feel his presence again. And they do just that.
They return to Jerusalem and devote themselves to each other and to prayer, and this motley crew of mixed-up people eventually receive the Holy Spirit and become the church, the body of Jesus on earth. Together they began to say and do things that sounded and looked like him. They became brave, capable and wise. And they realize that with each other and the Holy Spirit, Jesus is still with them.
When I think about the times when I have been most aware of God’s presence, it has almost always been when I have been with other people. I think of Easter Sunday when we were gathered together in worship and praise. I felt God’s presence. Or on the Sunday of the bishop’s visit when young Natalie so bravely and firmly pronounced her baptismal vows. Or the trip to Appalachia with a group of youth when I watched young people understand for the first time that they lived a very privileged life that most people in the world don’t get to experience and their hearts were expanded with this new knowledge. Or the time when a whole congregation came together to support a grandfather and the two young grandchildren he was now raising after his daughter, their mother, died.
Those times when I sense God’s presence are times when it seems that the world is as it should be, even if it is just for a moment. It isn’t about feeling good or happy or something like that, although I often do feel good and happy in these moments, but not always. It is about feeling connected to something greater than myself. It is about feeling like something falls into place and everyone, including me, is just a little braver, more capable and wiser than we would usually be. It is about the times when we come together and sound and look like Jesus when he walked on this earth. Somehow, in those moments, God’s presence is alive and real to me. It is the reason why I continue to be a part of a Christian community. Yes, God is always present with me and with you, whether we feel God’s presence or not, whether we are with other people or not. But somehow this presence is easier to feel when we are with other people. Somehow the presence of God is more real when we come together to pray, worship, and do the work of Jesus.
Now certainly I am motivated by lesser things in belonging to a Christian community as well. I like the familiarity of worship that I have been doing all my life. I like the comfort of seeing people that I know and care about week in and week out. I enjoy the music. The beauty of this building moves me. But these are things that I can mostly find elsewhere. What I can’t find elsewhere is a group of people gathered to feel God’s presence and be Jesus’ body on earth. What I find here, in this community, and the other Christian communities I have been a part of, is a group of people longing for God’s presence, who, gathered together for prayer, worship, spiritual exploration, and service, find this presence in one another. Find this presence as we get on and do the work Jesus has given us to do.
Now, do we always find this presence? No. Sometimes we get caught up in lesser things. Sometimes we drive each other absolutely crazy, especially those times when we don’t see eye to eye on some issue or another. Sometimes we think lesser things are the most important things and we get so distracted that we can’t even notice God even when God is yelling into our ear. Yet, when we persist in gathering, praying, worshiping, exploring, and serving together, these lesser things occasionally fall away and we find ourselves standing in God’s presence and we discover that we are braver, more capable, and wiser than we ever thought we can be. But we have to show up together for this to happen. We have to be willing to stop looking at what is not important and turn our gaze to one another for these moments to occur.
I wonder when, in your life, you have experienced the presence of God. If it has never been in Christian community, or hasn’t been in Christian community lately, I wonder why not. Is your gaze directed at things of lesser importance? Is it time to look around at the people gathered in community with you and really see and engage with them?
I don’t think any human being can sustain an awareness of the presence of God all the time. As wonderful as God’s presence feels, it is almost too much for us to feel this presence all the time. And yet, we will long for the feeling of this presence, just as I longed for the presence of my children even when I needed a break from them for a brief time in order to regain a sense of myself. So, we will long for God’s presence. We will gather together in our longing for this presence, hoping that we will feel this presence here in this place, the church. And, if we are willing to let down our walls and look away from lesser things and look and engage with one another as we gather together in longing for God’s presence, we will find this presence and we will become braver, more capable, and wiser than we ever thought we could be. We will find ourselves looking and being just a little bit more like Jesus. And others will find themselves experiencing a little bit of God’s presence through us.
“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:11-14)