Nearly ten years ago when we were making all the repairs and renovations to the Church that were the focus of our Centennial Capital Campaign, I as talking with our general contractor and a learned a new phrase: command presence. The person who has this presence is a leader, one who carries authority naturally and well, one whom others will follow in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances, a leader who inspires confidence. For those of you who have served in the military, I am sure that is a familiar term, but it was new to me.
Our general contractor was a Korean War veteran, and he used that term “command presence” to describe our parishioner who was the liason to the contractor. That parishioner was Charlie Hogan. Charlie moved to be close to his daughter several years ago, but I know that many of you remember him. Charlie, also, was a veteran of the Korean War, serving as a Navy Seabee – Construction Battalion.
I always thought that Charlie was the sort of person to whom you could give a bag of parts, and he’d be able to make a refrigerator out of them. But more than that, was the feeling I had whenever I would speak with Charlie – that I should stand a little straighter, listen a little more intently – even if I didn’t always agree with what he had to say: command presence.
I’m sure that command presence was honed and polished during his military service, but it didn’t start there; it started with Charlie himself, who he was, the strength of his character, the clarity of his thinking, his loyalty towards those he cared for and was responsible for. It just who Charlie was – command presence.
We hear some of that command presence in today’s Gospel. The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because he taught as one having authority, he drove out demons and healed as one having authority – not like the scribes who were merely interpreters of the religious law, passing on what they had received from the rabbis and scholars before them. Jesus, however, spoke and taught and healed with authority – command presence.
Our culture, for many reasons, has had an ongoing struggle and crisis with authority for the last fifty years; and that struggle has left its mark on the Church. I’m not talking about authority as being authoritarian: “Do as I say or else”; but I’m talking about authority as having confidence in what is true and right and good.
Sometimes, of course, we need to stop and ask questions: In what way is this the right thing? For whom is it good, who will benefit? How do we know this? These are all important questions, and we have, as a society, come to some new and broader understandings of laws, policies, traditions, and attitudes that are of benefit to the population as a whole. We should never be afraid to ask important questions of truth, goodness, and rightness.
We in the Church, however, especially in the historic main-line churches, have allowed our confidence in the truth and power of God as revealed in Jesus to be eroded. We have allowed our confidence in the relevance and truth of Scripture to be eroded. We have allowed our trust in the guidance of the Holy Spirit to be eroded. We have lost our nerve in regard to our ability to encounter God for ourselves and hear the way the Spirit speaks to us.
And so often that leads us, the Church, to present a hesitant face to the world because we don’t want to offend others, or to come off seeming judgmental, or to be perceived as people who hold to a very narrow understanding of faith, the Bible, and God. That is very understandable, and good to be aware of, but we don’t have to let those fears shape or define what we know to be true. A very bad, yet telling, joke goes like this: What do you get when you cross an Episcopalian with a Jehovah’s Witness? Someone who rings your doorbell, and when you answer they have nothing to say.
Can that really be so? Do we Episcopalians really have nothing to say about the love and grace of God? Have we really not experienced the presence and power of Jesus in our lives – at least at some time or another? Can we not give voice to the hope that is in us?
The authority that Jesus exhibited in the synagogue in Capernaum was grounded in his trust and confidence in the presence of God with him always. It’s what gave fuel to his command presence in teaching, healing, and leading. Jesus wasn’t following a script. He didn’t have a carefully selected set of verses from the Old Testament that he was going to recite to those he met which would convince them to follow him. He talked with people; he told stories about human life that were true; he listened to what was really going on with those who came to him, and even those who walked away; he did not suffer fools and bullies gladly, but his compassion for the broken and broken-hearted was boundless. Jesus showed people what God is like. That is where his confidence and authority came from.
At our Diocesan Convention on Friday and Saturday we practiced our stories – sharing and listening to, receiving, moments, snippets, snapshots of our lives where faith and God were present, when something profound had happened, even if we didn’t know it at first. A few stories were carefully crafted, shared on video with the entire convention – a mother’s dying, a second chance given, forgiveness received, a legacy of church and family woven together, a false love lost and a true love found. Then the rest of us shared a story of our own, in pairs at our tables, two minutes each, with our conversation partner then reflecting to the table group the hope or energy or joy they had heard in what we had offered.
In sharing my story, which I thought I knew very well, a new awareness and word came to mind: refuge. My story as about finding refuge at a time I sorely needed it, and that then turned to gratitude. But I had never thought of it in terms of refuge before, and it brought tears to my eyes to say it. And it was absolutely the presence and power of God.
We all have those stories, those God stories, those faith stories. Eight hundred people during the convention had those stories – even if they had never before shared them with anyone else, let alone a person they had just met. You all have those God stories – otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Our stories are true, and good, and holy – even if the details lead through some dark and ugly places. Our stories are holy because God is in them. They are true because they are an expression of God’s love and care. They are good because they give us hope.
We can have confidence in our faith and in the hope we may offer to others because we know what God in Christ has done for us; we have witnessed first-hand God’s faithful presence. We can share our stories of God and life with authority because we have lived them. Our stories are the modern-day Scriptures that the Holy Spirit is writing even now. And when we share our stories with others, we share the goodness of God and hold out the possibility of hope to someone who may need to hear that very word of hope for themselves – or forgiveness, or love, or encouragement, or refuge, or gratitude. And all of that is God’s very Good News.
Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, you write your word of hope in our lives and upon our hearts. Give us trust and confidence in you, that we may share our hope and joy and gratitude with others, that they, too, may come within the reach of your saving embrace. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 28, 2018