About twelve years ago, when I moved here, I thought I was moving from the claustrophobic microscope of small-town living to a relatively anonymous life in the big city. The retired couple who lived across from the parsonage used to greet me in the morning with words like these: "Your light usually goes on at about 7:00 in the morning, but it didn't come on until 7:30 today. Is everything okay?" One day, at the post office, one of the farmers said, "I saw you leave town the other day and I thought your car was going to turn left, but it turned right. Where'd you go?" (As I was opening my mouth and trying to form words, another farmer interrupted, "She doesn't have to tell you where she's going." Bless him.)
Don't get me wrong. I loved this town and its people. They were, in many ways, an extremely gracious parish, a lovely place for a first call pastor to get her start. They greeted me when I arrived at the parsonage, helped me to unload my car and then left me to unpack in private. They knocked before entering. I never found them in the parsonage without my permission. But I was unused to the feeling that I got that people pretty much knew where I was at all times, knew which house the pastor lived in, could see my car come from a good distance away.
So imagine my surprise when, shortly after I returned to what I thought was big-city life, I was getting tickets to a movie with a date and the teenage clerk blurted out, "Aren't you the new pastor at Brand X Lutheran Church?"
I run into parish members, community leaders and neighbors regularly at the grocery store, as well as the Big Store with the Red Circles and other places of interest. Once, after Good Friday Tenebrae services, I ran into a couple from church at the grocery store. We greeted each other silently, I leaned in and whispered, "I think it's all right to talk now."
But I measure most of all my lack of anonymity by the people who tell me, "I see you out walking your dog in the morning." Maybe it's because in this particular case, they see me, but I never see them. I am blithely going along, getting in exercise and bonding time with Scout, while unbeknownst to me, I Am Being Watched. They don't wave to me. I don't notice them. But people know I'm around, in the community. And they feel compelled to tell me, "I see you out walking your dog in the morning."
I'm enough of a believer in the priesthood of all believers that I don't believe that I'm a "sign of God's presence in the community." The truth is, we're all that: each and every one of us mostly anonymous Christians. We're all signs of God's presence in the community. And, like a lot of God's signs, they are mostly small or invisible. The pastor walking her dog. The young woman next door who works with child protection. The teenager helping younger children learn to read. The older couple who have opened their home to young adults.
You never know where we are. But we're God's people, and we're on a lot of streets.
An inelegant postscript:
actually, upon thinking about it, I think I am a sign of God's presence in the world -- in particular as a pastor. Here's how: when you see me, you know there must be a congregation around somewhere. You know that God has called me to serve God's people in the world. Sometimes I happen to be more visible because I'm wearing a collar, or I'm standing up in front. But I'm a small visible sign of the presence of God's people, the ones who have called me to lead them, provoke them, listen to them, and equip them.