How do you know when God is present in a community? I used to think of this as an academic question, but since the Supreme Court’s decisions to overturn California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, I’ve come to realize it’s not so academic after all.

How to you when God is resent in a community? A century ago from this pulpit, the pastor of Saint Peter’s Church answered that question definitively by saying that you know God is present in a community when that community acknowledges the sovereignty and authority of the Prince of Peace. Good answer! — Until he later identified the “Prince of Peace” as Kaiser Wilhelm II. He changed his tune shortly after the Lusitania was sunk.

How do you know when God is present in a community? In New Orleans, precisely forty years ago this week, from July 7 – 13, 1973, several hundred delegates — laymen and clergymen — answered that question definitively by saying that you know God is present in a community when that community acknowledges and adheres to the teaching of a Bible that is factual about everything —
talking snakes, prophet-swallowing fish, six twenty-four hour days of creation — and by majority vote declared those who do not acknowledge such things “not to be tolerated in the Church of God.” They have never changed their tune to this day.

How do you know when God is present in a community? According to the critics of the Supreme Court’s decisions on marriage equality, God is no longer present in a community — in this case, a Nation — when 5 justices refuse to acknowledge the laws of nature and God.

How do you know God is present in a community? These and virtually every other response responses to this question fascinate me because they have one thing in common. Each identifies God’s presence in terms of enforcement as authority and each demand that community’s accept enforcement as authority or suffer the consequences. The current expression of “the consequences” is “the end of our civilization.”

How do you know God is present in a community?
How do we know God is present in this community? How do you know that God is present in your life? Or, in church language, how to we give witness to our faith?

Today’s readings from Luke, Paul and Third Isaiah are precisely about this question. Listen again to some of their answers.

Saint Paul writes, “If anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have the Spirit should restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness…So let us not grow weary of doing what is right….whenever we have the opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Or, as Jesus ends out the seventy, he tells them, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'”…Whoever listens to you listens to me, [and to] the one who sent me.”

How do we know that God is present in a community, in this community, in your life?
How do we give witness to our faith? There is authority, there are rules and parameters in each of today’s readings, but their enforcement is not really a sign of God’s presence. Healing, wholeness, welcome, restoration, people working for the good of all,” these are the signs of God’s presence because these are the signs of God’s love.

What makes it possible for us to live that way? What makes it possible for us to shape our communities to show the presence of God’s love?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives one answer, one foundational reason why we are able to do that. Jesus puts it this way: ”Rejoice that your names are written in heaven." I’d put it this way: Nothing left to fear.

All well and good. But in my opinion, there is nothing that either Jesus or I say today that tops the ecstatic utterance of Third Isaiah and center and define how we know the presence of God in this community and in this place.
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her —
that you may nurse and be satisfied
from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from her glorious bosom.

How do we know God’s presence in a community? “Take a drink,” and all the rest will follow.