Presence Matters (Matthew 2)

“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1–2 NRSV)

Alive Enough

One of the most interesting episodes from the radio program, On Being with Krista Tippet, I’ve ever listened to was titled, “Alive Enough: Reflecting on Our Relationship With Technology.” For the program, Tippet interviewed Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who has done research on the prolonged effects of technology in the practices of everyday life. Turkle’s book “Alone Together” is aptly titled and describes how we as a society are increasingly connecting with one another in ways that may look like we are together, but leave us experiencing deep loneliness.

In this particular episode, Sherry Turkle recalls a visit with her fourteen year old daughter, Rebecca, to  to the “Darwin exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.”  In this museum you come face to face with dinosaurs, and many other species of life that document in physical form the transformation of life over millions of years. This exhibit is a celebration of the beauty of all of life. And features many of Darwin’s insights and findings. At the entrance of the exhibit two giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands. The location of many of Darwin’s now-famous discoveries.

The museum had been advertising these tortoises as wonders, curiosities, and marvels. Here, among the plastic models at the museum, was the life that Darwin saw more than a century and a half ago. One tortoise was hidden from view; the other rested in its cage, utterly still. Rebecca inspected the visible tortoise thoughtfully for a while and then said matter-of-factly, “They could have used a robot.” I was taken aback and asked what she meant. She said she thought it was a shame to bring the turtle all this way from its island home in the Pacific, when it was just going to sit there in the museum, motionless, doing nothing. Rebecca was both concerned for the imprisoned turtle and unmoved by its authenticity.

So Sherry Turkle, a researcher, began asking other young people who were present at the exhibit, during this busy, Thanksgiving weekend. Her question was simple, “Do you care that the turtle is alive?” Many of those she spoke with responded with similar feelings. The water is icky, one said.

More usually, votes for the robots echoed my daughter’s sentiment that in this setting, aliveness didn’t seem worth the trouble. A twelve-year-old girl was adamant: “For what the turtles do, you didn’t have to have the live ones.”

Q: What do you think?

In the midst of all this grandeur, all these bones that narrate a story our human story the world, for a number of those present the need to have an “original” or the “real thing” seemed not all that important. You just need something to represent that thing, a robot would do fine.

The sentiment might be expressed, as long as we know it is there somewhere, we don’t have to see the real thing.

In our world today, we are growing more and more accustom to a symbolic presence of someone or something. For Facebook we post a picture, we call an avatar, that we hope projects a symbolic version of ourselves worth sharing with the world. My kids have grown accustom to their grandparents voices and faces on the screen of a computer. It helps, I won’t argue with that, but it’s still not the real thing.

My guess is that for most of us when it comes to life, we would say that we believe that realistic, authentic presence matters. Symbolic presence isn’t the same as the real thing, not matter how “real-to-life” it might be.

My concern is this: In what ways does our society, with its technology, consumerism and entertainment culture, help you supplement relationships or become a substitute for authentic relationships? Are we growing in our awareness that presence, our presence, your full, authentic presence, really matters to your family, your church, your community, your co-workers?

Where is the Baby?

Matthew 2 is a story about real, authentic presence. The three magi, traditionally known as: Melchior (Babylonian scholar), Caspar (Persian scholar), and Balthazar (an Arab scholar), were as Alyce McKenzie points out, most likely three members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, noted for their study of the stars as part of their religion.

In keeping with the trajectory of Jesus’ Genealogy, these magi were from the East, which is to say they were foreigners, they were aliens, outsiders to the biblical story.  Rather than just telling us that outsiders are to be accepted, or that God can guide and be known by those who are perceived to be outsiders, the  the bible shows us. After showing up to the king’s palace, where you might expect a new king to be born,  they ask:

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”

From the perspective of King Herod, the presence of the magi is alarming and unwelcome. It alerts Herod to face that a political rival has been born.

And from the perspective of the magi, their presence is meant to be honoring.  Their question is basically to say, “Tell us where where this baby is because we want to show up and pay him reverence with our physical presence. We want to see for ourselves.” They use the word homage, which means “to do reverence or homage by kissing the hand, to do reverence by prostration, adoration.” You can’t pay homage in the way these magi want to pay homage without showing up at the place where the child was born.

** One of the best things I get to do as pastor is show up at the hospital when a baby is born. I haven’t made it to the hospitals to see all the baby’s born, but if I can’t I am over at the house as soon as possible. When I can go and pay homage to the parents, the new child, and the gift of life itself with my physical presence, it’s so much more special than sending a text or writing a note on someone’s Facebook.

Showing Up

In her book, Improv Wisdom, Patricia Ryan Madson draws on the insights from years of teaching improv at Stanford and writes  this book about how improv can actually help us in our everyday life. She says in the introduction,

“Life is an improvisation, and if we are lucky, a long one.”

The book is made up of 13 improv maxims that can teach us about life, things like:

  • Say Yes
  • Don’t Prepare
  • Start Anywhere
  • Wake up to the gifts
  • Act Now
  • Take Care of Each other

And one of my favorites is “Just Show Up.”

Here’s what she says,

This principle is deceptively simple. Just show up. Where we are makes a difference. Move your body toward your dreams – to where they’re happening – the gym, the office, the yoga class, your kitchen, the improv class, the garage, a cruise ship, the word processor, the construction site, the senior center, the theater. [And I’ll add, the meetinghouse or church function!] You know where. Be there physically. With the advent of cell phones you may have noticed that the time-honored greeting “How are you?” has been replaced by the query, “Where are you?” Location means everything.

And I can’t help but hear the Magi all through this.

  • The magi just show up.
  • They believe that where they were headed would make a difference.
  • The believed that they needed to be there.
  • They were quite literally following their dreams, which in the biblical story, is just another way that God guides and leads us.
  • The magi know where they are supposed to be. And when they first show up at Herod’s and perceive that they are in the wrong place, they do not give up, but they continue to pursue where they ought to go.
  • They pursued their dreams because they wanted to be there.  They wanted to see what would happen. They didn’t have to out of obligation, they had to out of curiosity, they had to out of a sense of wonder. They wanted to honor the Jewish baby with their physical, authentic presence.

And think of this: From all we know from Matthew’s Gospel, no one else went!  All the shepherds and everybody else is found in Luke’s Gospel. What if the Magi said, ah forget it, I’m sure someone else will go, someone else will take care of it.

No! For people who believe that presence is an essential part of life and their practice of faith, they trust that showing up really matters.

And here’s the word for you this morning:

You presence really matters. It matters to your kids. It matters to your spouse. It matters to your friends. It matters to the people in your church. It matters to the people in your community. It matters to your colleagues. It matters to strangers.

We can’t replace you with a robot. And when you are not here, wherever here is, your absence is felt.

Presence is a core practice of the Christian faith. We value presence so much, not because of what we can get out of it, not because of obligation, or duty, but because God showed up. The birth of Jesus tells us that what matters most and what makes a difference in the world is authentic, loving presence.

God showed up, and God continues to show up in us, and through us.

I was talking about this with a friend recently who said:

In presence I am known. My being present within my faith community builds up the faith and supports others because they see me there. We all bring light, if you aren’t here, there is something missing.

Again Patricia Madson says,

So often it is our presence alone, rather than some special ability, that makes a difference.

Think about a time when you were hurting, in pain, or felt alone and someone showed up, they didn’t say anything, they just sat beside you, put their arm around you, held your hand.

Think about a time when you were a afraid, but someone came alongside you and walked the path with you.

Think about a time when you thought showing up didn’t really matter but you did it any way and all the difference it made for you or someone else who was there.

And think about Mary and Joseph.

Imagine what it was like for them to have these three magi come knocking on their door. This young couple whose start to married life has been anything but smooth. This couple who are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. This young couple who were no doubt poor and afraid.

What would the arrival of these three Zoroastrian priests who bore the gifts of presence, and the gifts meant for a king?

What would it have been like for Mary and Joseph to have their wild tale of Jesus’ birth validated miraculously by these three wayfarers?

What might it have been like for these poor people, who have managed to hold their family together in these trying times, to have these three ornate men, dressed as royalty into their small home, which was clearly not the palace of a king, there to honor a baby they believed to be a king?

Do you see how the presence of the magi is itself a gift? Their arrival, their showing up,  is something that changes the story on so many levels.

Do we value the presence of others, and do we see that our own of “Showing up” is itself a necessary part of the practice of our Christian faith?

I would like to invite us to consider the word presence as our one word as Camas Friends Church for the coming year. Let’s have 2014 be characterized by our authentic and real presence, wherever we are.

This year, let’s put a premium on location over logging on; on honoring others by being present ourselves; on showing up that makes a difference and on valuing the presence of one another, and seeing how our own presence is itself a gift to be given.

As far as I’m concerned no robot will do for you.


So let me ask you: Would it make a difference to you if you were at a church and everyone there was a robot? Does physical presence matter?

Flickr Credit Andrew Miller