Methodist Vows: Presence

Methodist Vows: “Presence”
A Message on Hebrews 10:19-25

For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church

January 13, 2019

By Doug Wintermute


Hebrews 10:19-25  (NRSV)


Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.


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Today we continue our sermon series on the vows we make when we join the United Methodist Church by exploring the topic of “presence.”


Now I know we just celebrated Christmas with “presents” (with a “t”) but that is not what we are talking about today. No. Today we are talking about “presence,” about what I like to call “showing up.”


When we join the United Methodist church we we are asked, “Will you faithfully participate in its ministries with your prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness?” This is a vow that we make, a promise, a contract, that we make with God and with the congregation. It’s not something that we should take lightly or just say the words without meaning it.


Part of that vow is to be present, to actually participate in things by showing up for them.


Actor and director Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up. I think a similar thing is true when it comes to our faith life as well. A large part of spiritual growth is just showing up. As Christians we need to show up for worship every Sunday, but also Sunday School, ministries such as chancel choir or Out of the Boat or one of our many music ministries, for our food pantry, for small group studies, for Bible studies (which we will be starting soon), for Mini-Methodists or JUMY or SUMY, or Shared Table, or one of our prayer teams, or our Adopt-A-School work with West Side Elementary… or any of our ministries.


You get the idea. So maybe that quote should be “80 percent of spiritual growth is showing up.”


I mentioned this several Sundays ago, but we have a little over 900 members of this church. That is official, on paper, numbers. We have had more than 900 people who have made a vow to support this church with the prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.


And yet on any given Sunday we find less than 1/4 of them attending worship.


You may not be aware of it but our ushers count the number of people in worship every Sunday. They count the number of people here in the sanctuary but also go to the nursery and count the children and workers that are present there. Then they go and write that number down on a sheet on the wall of the church office. Ann keeps track of those numbers and then calculates what our average attendance is for the year, something that we have to report on the forms annually.


Ann, our administrative assistant, just recently calculated our average worship attendance for the 2018 year. It was 232. So, if my math is right, of 900-something members of this church on any given Sunday about ¼ of them attend worship. About one out of four. Three out of four members don’t attend.


Not only that, but our conference wants us to report attendance numbers weekly through something they call “Vital Signs.” As its name implies, the vitality, or how strong and active a church is, can be determined in large part to how many of its members attend worship services regularly. Hmmmm. Wonder what that says about our vitality?


I was at a meeting with our Bishop this past week over in Tyler. One of the things that he pointed out was that there is a trend in our denomination that the term “regular attendance” has changed among our denomination’s members. Years ago the term “regular attendance” meant attending church not only every Sunday morning but also Sunday night and Wednesday night as well. Then it came to mean every Sunday morning and Sunday night. Then just Sunday morning. Then three out of four Sundays a month. Then maybe half of the Sundays every month. And now members consider themselves to be in “regular attendance” if they show up for worship one Sunday out of the month.


Unless I misunderstood him (which is very possible), he very bluntly said that he didn’t believe a person is truly a Christian if they show up for worship only once Sunday a month. Ouch!


Now I know there are a lot of excuses.  Illness is an acceptable excuse for missing church. If you are sick, especially if you have something that might be contagious, then don’t come to church! But some people will use any ache or pain as an excuse not to come to church. I always find it ironic when people say they can’t come to church because of illness or pain but then I see them later in Walmart (and not at the pharmacy in the store). My theory is that if you can go to Walmart then you can go to church.


One of the things that has grown in recent years that competes with church attendance is youth sport programs. Now I know I’m going to step on some toes here and I know that I should probably apologize, but what I hope to do is to speak the truth in love.


“Select” teams and “travel” team sports view Sunday as just another day and I have heard parents tell me they can’t be at church because they “have” to be at these tournaments with their kids. They will say something like “We don’t like that they have games on Sundays but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Actually, yes there is: don’t participate. When you miss Sunday School and church for a sporting event those children are receiving a message from you, their parent, that sports is more important than God, that their faith life is something that must fit in to the schedule of worldly things.


And for those of you who think all the money and time you are investing in sports for your kids will pay off when your child receives a college scholarship and then turns pro, here are some statistics for you.


For boys the odds of playing baseball (which has the best odds) in college are 9:1. The odds for playing at a NCAA Divison I school are 47:1. And the odds of them playing professional baseball, at any level, are 764:1.


For girls the best odds are found in the sport of soccer. The odds of a high school girl playing at any level collegiately is 10:1 and of playing for a NCAA Division I school are 45:1. And the odds of them playing professional soccer at any level are 1,756:1.


The average athletic scholarship amount for D-I colleges is $16,186 for men and $16,931 for women. The average for D-II schools is $6,012 for men and $7,363 for women. And that’s not per semester or even per year, that’s the total for four years of college. And if you have priced colleges lately you’ll know that’s only a drop in the bucket. [Source:]


So where should your presence be on Sundays?


It’s not a new challenge. In the scripture we read today the writer of Hebrews (who most scholars think is anonymous) is encouraging the early Christians to persevere in following Jesus Christ. One of the problems the author points out is that some Christians have gotten into the habit of not meeting together with others.


Listen to verses 24 and 25: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”


Here’s The Message paraphrase of those verses: “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”


Something holy happens with the people of God worship together. If Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is as important to us as we say it is, then our actions need to back that up.


Now I’ve heard people say, “Well, I’m closest to God when I am in the woods hunting” or “… when I’m on the water fishing.”


I get it. I really do. I experience God profoundly in those situations as well. But that does NOT replace corporate worship, coming together with other believers to worship God.


Worshipping together as a group has been an integral part of the Christian faith since the church was formed. As a matter of fact if you think about it on the day of Pentecost, considered to be the “birthday” of the church, the disciples of Jesus weren’t alone in their homes or out somewhere. No, they were gathered as a group. “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1) (Emphasis mine)


That’s what I think the ascetic hermits in ancient days that lived by themselves in caves in the deserts got wrong. Now don’t get me wrong, I think spending time alone with God is important part of one’s spiritual life, but coming together with other Christians to worship, to pray, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to participate in baptisms, and even to celebrate the resurrection of those who have finished their race in our world… all those things are very important as well. You can’t do that living by yourself in a cave in the desert.


Being a Christian, being a follower of Jesus Christ, means interacting with other followers of Jesus Christ.


I think that maybe part of the reason we as Americans don’t place a priority on worship is because it’s too easy for us. I realize this when I read about Christians in places in the world where Christianity has been deemed illegal. In so many places in the world today people are risking their very lives to come together in underground churches, smuggling Bibles, meeting in people’s houses behind closed doors, all while knowing the penalty of being caught is death.


And yet in those very dangerous situations people of God accept the risks and gather together for worship. (Ask yourself if you would be willing to do that.) And amazingly it is in those situations the church is growing.


Those brave believers are following the model of the church given to us in the second chapter of Acts where we read, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) So what excuse do we have when we have the freedom to worship without fear or reprisals? Do we not come to worship because it is just too easy?


Here’s a little thought metaphor process I want us to try. What if we treated church attendance like we do school attendance? What if we took attendance every Sunday? What if there was some sort of punitive repercussions for “unexcused absences”? What if the church hired a truancy officer that showed up at the home or work of those that have missed church too many times? (I think Christine Little would make a good church truancy officer for us.)


What if after people missed too many times they were assigned to “Alternative Church,” where they had to do extra work and earn the right to once again attend “regular church”?


Here’s another perspective on that metaphor. What if only 25 percent of a school’s students showed up on a given day? What if “normal school attendance” was only attending only one out of every four days? How effective of an education would that be for young folks?


Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for implementing any of those things in the church. But I think it is a pretty good thought exercise to get us to thinking about church attendance.


Being a Christian means gathering–regularly–with other Christians. It has been that way since the beginning of the church. “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”


So my challenge for you this week is twofold: First, attend worship regularly. And by regularly I don’t mean one time a month. Let’s try four times a month, or at the minimum, three. Make coming together with other Christians to worship a priority for you.


Second, encourage someone else to attend Sunday School and church regularly. We all know someone who isn’t here today–and probably some who haven’t been here in a while–so I challenge you to call them, text them, email them, or even visit them. Encourage them to attend church regularly as they promised in their membership vows.


Faithfully support the church with your presence as you promised with your membership vows.


After all, you really don’t want me to send Ms. Christine to find you.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.

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