“Altar Your Presence”
Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn
One of the words we use a lot in the United Methodist church is the word Connection. Generally, when we use the word Connection we are talking about the connection between the local church to the District, the Annual Conference, the Jurisdictional Conference, the General Conference all United Methodist Churches around the world. Our founder John Wesley realized there was power in this idea of connection.
John Wesley understood the communal nature of the church and of faith. He planned and designed ways for us to stay connected together. We know those ways as bands, class meetings and society meetings. What we would call small group or accountability group meetings where we drew strength, knowledge and wisdom form one another.
But he also knew the source of the power of those connections. That source is Worship, represented by the Altar. Everything we do emanates from this Altar to the world. And just like that little video, if we are not plugged in, or in Wesleyan terms, if we are not connected to God, to Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to each other through prayer and worship, we have no power. We’ll get nothing done.
As we begin this morning ask yourself this: “Are you connected?”
When I was in the Coast Guard, my first tour of duty was on a Long Range Aids To Navigation or LORAN, Station on the Island of Hokkaido, in Japan. LORAN was the precursor to GPS. We broadcast a radio signal for ships and planes to use, along with others, to track their positions.
The radio room of our base, like every other radio room at the time, had two teletype machines, sort of like prehistoric fax machines. It was amazing technology back then, though electronics were a lot bigger. Anyway, the radioman on the base was in charge of keeping all the radio equipment up and running. And the Coast Guard had a regular preventive maintenance program, part of which was to disassemble each teletype once every six months for a thorough cleaning.
I remember one time or radioman complaining because he couldn’t figure out what he was doing wrong. He had carefully taken the teletype apart, just like before. Cleaned all the part, check all the tubes and wires and carefully reassembled it. But it wouldn’t work. So, he took it all apart again and then reassembled it again. That was when one of my buddies and happened into the radio room and heard the story. We were diesel mechanics not electronics technicians but we immediately saw the problem.
However, we didn’t tell him until after he had disassembled and assemble it a third time. We sat in the corner watching his frustration and chuckling to ourselves. As he started to disassemble it the 4th time, we took pity and asked one simple question: “Did you plug it in?”
We were ruthless and laughed about that for weeks. He said he was never so glad when somebody else finally made a bonehead mistake so he could get out of the center of the firing range. The point is that we have to stay connected to the source of our power. And we do that through prayer and Worship. By Altaring our Worship, we can actually begin fulfilling the mission God in Christ has set before us; Altering or Transforming the world around us.
Jesus was trying to get this point across to the Disciples at the Last Supper. Here’s how He put it.
John 15:1-17 (NRSV)
 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.
 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.
 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.
 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.
 You are my friends if you do what I command you.
 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.
 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
A. Today we are talking about Altaring Our Worship. In United Methodist speak, we are talking about the membership vow of supporting the church with our presence; with our being here and being involved. That involvement part is very important. It denotes action and personal participation. Coming to Worship so you can be refueled in order to live out your faith and be involved in the life of the community of faith is active. If you simply “attend” it’s kind of like going to a play or a movie. You might be entertained but you didn’t invest anything more than the price of admission.
There are a lot of reasons for attending Church and all the various activities that take place here. You can come for the worst of reasons and you can come for the best of reasons. Some people come to be seen. Some people come to be heard. Some people come because it's the place to be. Some people come because it's expected of them. Some people come because there's nothing else to do. Some people come because it's the best place for their kids to be. Some folks come for what they can get. Others come for what they can give. Some people come simply because they love the Lord.
Altaring Your Presence through Worship, Prayer and Participation is a way of being faithful to God and growing as a Disciple. It’s a way of staying connected to the True Vine, Jesus.
B. There's another very unselfish, very other centered reason for being a part of all that takes place. You're needed. You're needed by the youth. You’re needed by the children. You’re needed by the choir, by United Methodist Women, by the United Methodist Men, by your Sunday School teacher, by the Missions Committee, by the preacher, by each other. You really ARE needed. You provide support.
You know how devastating and discouraging it can be to work hard and sacrifice and prepare something for a group of people only to have a handful show up.
Remember how you felt when you had worked hard on a devotion or Sunday School lesson or some presentation and only two people showed up? We have been "commended in love and care to each other. We are called to do all in our power to increase each other's faith, confirm each other's hope, and perfect each other in love." We do that in part by being present for each other.
I know a lot of people who say to themselves, "Oh, I won't be missed." Wrong! You ARE missed. Very much. We may not always get around to telling you so, but when you're not here, you are missed because the Body of Christ, as it is manifest in this church, is incomplete with you, your presence and your involvement.
C. In the movie New In Town, starring Renee Zellweger, she plays Lucy, a high-powered executive consultant in love with her upscale Miami lifestyle. Lucy who is sent to a middle of nowhere town in Minnesota to oversee the restructuring of a blue collar manufacturing plant. After enduring a frosty reception from the locals, icy roads and freezing weather, she warms up to the small town's charm, and eventually finds herself being accepted by the community. When she's ordered to close down the plant and put the entire community out of work, she's forced to reconsider her goals and priorities, and finds a way to save the town. Along the way, she finds out she is not alone. Watch
In this scene Blanche has given Lucy a present. Lucy says, “Oh, blanche, you didn’t have to get me anything.”
Blanche says, “Oh I didn’t get it, not like ‘store bought’ get it. I made it.” Lucy says thank you and takes it. Blanche goes on, “Just in case you want to start scrapbooking.” They look through the gift and come to a very forlorn picture of Lucy, who asks when Blanche took it. Blanche says, “Oh, it was awhile ago. You looked like you had the weight of the world on your shoulders. So alone. But you know, Lucy, you’re never really alone. Jesus understands what you’re going through. He’s there for you. And so am I.”
When we Altar Our Worship, we both learn and are able to tell others: “You’re never really alone. Jesus understands what you’re going through. He’s there for you. And so am I.”
D. A number of years ago, we had a woman in our church by the name of Lee Davis. She was a deep inspiration for a lot of people because at age 100 she was in Church nearly every Sunday. The only time she didn’t attend was when she was sick or the weather made it difficult for her to get there. At 100, she was wheelchair bound. Another thing you need to know about Miss Davis is that she was deaf as a post. She heard very little of my sermon or anything else in worship.
But the kids loved her and she loved the children. It wasn’t unusual to see 5 or six of the kids sitting next to her as she worshipped. One Sunday, one of those little girls stood up and hollered in Miss Davis’ ear. “Miss Davis, I you can’t hear the music or hear the preacher preach, then why do you come?”
The whole church got quiet. Everybody, including me, was listening. Miss Davis said, “Honey, I want people to know what I stand for. I want everybody to know whose side I’m on.”
What an awesome testimony; one which that entire church heard. Lee Davis Altared Her Life through Worship. She Altared her Presence and altered the lives of everyone present.
A. I tried to think of all kinds of physical ways to show how we are connected. I thought about running string from the altar to and through and around all the pews and the choir loft and then at some point asking everyone to hold on like branches and grapes on a vine. But then there was the trip and tangle factor. I thought about stringing lots of little Xmas twinkle lights and plugging them in as we held them. But again there was the tripping and tangling factor which added the whole shock factor.
I thought about getting those pop beads that kids make jewelry out of and giving two to everybody, one to keep as a reminder of our connectedness and the other to make a giant pop bead chain to display on the Altar, reminding us that we are connected.
I thought about asking you to string beads on a key chain to remind you of how we are linked together. But then I tried it and knew it would be too hard for both little hands and older hands.
So, what I’ve come up with is this.
B. This is going to sound weird but “What do you know about Water Buffalo, especially the African Water Buffalo?” I didn't know much about them until I saw a video and it piqued my curiosity. Here’s a little of what I learned. Herd size is highly variable. The basic herds consist of related females, and their offspring, in an almost linear dominance hierarchy, with an adult male bull as the leader. The basic herds are surrounded by sub-herds of bachelor males, high-ranking males and females, and old or invalid animals. The young males keep their distance from the dominant bull, who is recognizable by the thickness of his horns.
When chased by predators a herd will stick close together and make it hard for the predators to pick off one member. Calves are gathered in the middle. Buffalo will try to rescue a member that has been caught. A calf's distress call will get the attention of not only the mother but also the entire herd which will engage in mobbing behavior when fighting off predators.
They stick together shoulder to shoulder, young behind and in the center of them, surround the young encircling them.
When we join the church and take the vows of membership, especially when someone is baptized, we take and renew our vows to live before one another as the Children of God so that we can see Christ in each other. We also vow to be part of a Herd, or family, who cares for and protects each other.
Sometimes we don’t do a very good job but our hope and our aim is that others will see the love of God as expressed in Christ in our lives. When that happens, within that family of faith we are supported and strengthened and sometimes even rescued.
Some of you may have seen this clip from Krueger National Park on You Tube. The full length version is over 8 minutes long and parts of it might be a little scary for the little ones, so I’ve tried to edit it so it still makes its point. And please don’t worry, it does have an amazing ending.
I loved how the entire herd came back to rescue that calf. They knew the power of the claws of the lions but they also knew the greater power of the herd. And those water buffalo who sent the lions running and flying, knew the rest of the herd was behind them. That’s the way it should be in every church, every faith community. It’s good to have a Herd. And when the Herd trusts God and is faithful to God, when everyone in this Herd we call the church Altars Their Worship and Their Prayers, we discover a strength that cannot be destroyed.
But we have to be Connected to the Source of that power and to each other. Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
We are called to bear much fruit. We are called to stay Connected. But we can’t do that without Prayer and Worship.
This is the Word of the Lord for this day.
Other References Consulted