January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Kate Cudlipp and I shared the practice of beginning our sermons with a portion from Psalm 19, and by continuing the practice I like to think that Kate is whispering over my shoulder, I am here, and her gift to us of “we’re all in this together.” So I pray:
Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
find favor in your Heart
O my Beloved, my strength and
A side note before I begin. There is a fair amount of reference to God as He, but only in quoted passages. Personally, I have no image for God beyond a poor attempt to describe the Holy One as the Great Mystery beyond my comprehension.
Over the weeks that I have worked on this sermon I have prayed a lot, and I tried to remember that God searched me and knows me, and even before a word was in my mind, the Holy One knew it completely, as Psalm 139 relates.
I found some humor in addressing the here I am theme for the season and the story of Samuel because, of course, the Bible is all about here I am stories from beginning to end, though in Samuel’s story it is so very explicit. And more than that, it is God’s story that the Holy One is always with us. Because we do become unmoored from our own story and from God, as Rev. Susan K. Smith wrote in her Tuesday Meditation of December 19th, 2017, I share:
“We are too often unaware of the power of God’s spirit in us, over us, with us all of the time. It is a Presence which we take for granted, a gift which we too often pass over and ignore because we are looking for something we consider to be greater.”
In reaction to the quote we might well say that there is nothing greater than God, but how often do we succumb to doubt and fear and yearn for tangible proof of something other than God? What then is our here I am when that happens?
And it seems almost comically obvious that Jesus’ story is totally about saying here I am all of the time, even when he lost his temper with the disciples, or went off by himself to pray, and on that painful Good Friday. I would suggest that during this Epiphany season as we celebrate the resurrection, which for me is our claiming to be the resurrected Body of Christ, we humbled and flawed people are saying here I am.
Besides God as the beginning and end of everything, I will not ignore that Hannah is the catalyst of Samuel’s story and said here I am in an extraordinary way, following and presaging the stories of many women in both the Old and New Testaments. From the Jewish Women’s Archive on the Samuel Midrash, I offer that (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hannah-midrash-and-aggadah)
“Her barrenness does not attest to her having sinned; rather, God desired her prayer, as in the case of the Matriarchs who were infertile before finally being blessed with children. The Rabbis learned many important halakhot [the religious laws from the Talmud] of prayer from Hannah’s entreaty at Shiloh and her prayer became a model of prayer that God answers. The major prophet Samuel was born by merit of Hannah’s prayer; not only did his mother impart life to him, she also saved his life when he was a small boy.
A bit further in this Midrash we read:
“Hannah uses a special term in her prayer: “Lord of Hosts” (v. 11). The Rabbis assert that Hannah was the first person since God created His world to use the name “Hosts.” She said to Him: “Master of the Universe! there is a heavenly host and an earthly one. The heavenly host neither eat nor drink, are not fruitful and don’t multiply, and do not die, but live forever. The earthly host eat and drink, are fruitful and multiply, and die. I do not know to which host I belong, whether to the heavenly host or the earthly one. If I am of the heavenly host, for I do not give birth, then I do not eat or drink [as Hannah did at Shiloh], and I shall not die, but live forever. But if I am of the earthly host, let me then eat and drink, give birth, and die” (Pesikta Rabbati 43).
The implication is that because she was the first to address the Holy One so, he granted her prayer for a son. When her son was born she named him Samuel, which is akin to the Hebrew for heard of God, and because God had heard her. She followed through on her faith-filled promise to give her son to the temple. Even so, it took tremendous faith, which I can dimly attest to out of my own related experience of giving my daughter up for adoption. It is clearly a response to God of HERE I AM!
The story doesn’t convey how Samuel reacted to being torn from the breast of his mother as an infant. Did he cry and scream at the separation? He couldn’t have had any idea he was chosen to be a prophet for the ages at that moment, to save the Israelites from the Philistines, recover the Arc of the Covenant, and more. Even after his time learning at Eli’s knee in the temple, what was his reaction when Eli told him that it was God calling and not him, and that he should respond “here I am” the next time the voice called? How confused Samuel must have been. I can only guess that his head was filled with questions of “Who are you?” and “Who am I?” even as he uttered his response of “Speak, for your servant is listening.” His life from that moment forward was unabashedly about being “here I am” for God.
What does Samuel’s story hold for us in the here and now? Where are any of us present for God?
All around us are examples of people in the now, in history, and in story proclaiming their here I am-ness. Miriam dancing after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Mary’s Magnificat, and more. First responders, physical and relational bridge builders, teachers, artists of every kind, hospice workers, and more, all fit the bill in their daily lives. I am a fan of Ted Talks. Admittedly, in my mind these are extraordinary people, however they think of themselves as just living out their lives. One thing is clear, that they embrace a belief in answering a call whether from a religious, spiritual or ethical source. I commend to you a few to illustrate big I am here stories in our own time that you can listen to by following the provided links when the sermon is posted online.
Keller Rinaudo wants everyone on earth to have access to basic health care, no matter how hard it is to reach them. With his start-up Zipline, he has created the world’s first drone delivery system to operate at national scale, transporting blood and plasma to remote clinics in East Africa with a fleet of electric autonomous aircraft. http://www.ted.com/talks/keller_rinaudo_how_we_re_using_drones_to_deliver_blood_and_save_lives
Love is a tool for revolutionary change and a path toward inclusivity and understanding for the LGBTQ+ community. Married activists Tiq and Kim Katrin Milan have imagined their marriage — as a transgender man and cis woman — a model of possibility for people of every kind. http://www.ted.com/talks/tiq_milan_and_kim_katrin_milan_a_queer_vision_of_love_and_marriage
One night in 2002, a friend gave Jorge Drexler the chorus to a song and challenged him to write the rest of it using a complex, poetic form known as the “Décima.” In this fascinating talk, Drexler examines the blended nature of identity, weaving together the history of the Décima with his own quest to write one.
There are many in our Seekers community who have, without limelight or notoriety, done extraordinary things. Everyone everywhere has it in them to acknowledge their presence. Every moment of every day, cognizant of the fact or not, we are all saying here I am, in large and small ways. From the negative, to the mundane in the everyday structures of our lives, or the positive actions we take, we say here I am again and again.
The hope is that saying here I am is saying yes to God’s invitation to walk in concert in love. Yet we can’t deny that there are those whose statements of here I am are antithetical to, I presume, what those of us here consider good. Dylann Roof walking into Mother Emmanuel church and murdering worshipers is a blatant example. The President of our country making proclamations of the vilest kind is a here I am beating of the chest. Even God’s planet is making a here I am statement, screaming at us as a result of human actions causing climate change. I could go on and on, but my desire is to hold up what we can be when we claim our presence to God.
We can think of the mundane ways we do this in terms of our exchanges with the cashier at a gas station or store when we engage with them as they serve us and treat them with the respect they deserve. In our civic roles we make a claim to our presence when we vote; when we stand up for injustice; when we write a letter to the editor (as Katie did so well the other week). We do it when we come to church; when we greet one another or the stranger in our midst; when we share in Circle Time; when we offer our confessions, thanksgiving, and prayers of petition and intercession aloud; when we preach; when we put an offering in the plate; when we offer our reflections after the sermon; or even make an announcement for the good of the community; when we write a spiritual report; and when we share about the condition of our soul in mission group. Seekers, as a community, said here I am in 1976 when we formed independently of Church of the Saviour, and later when we left 2025 and bought, renovated, and moved into this building. And Seekers proclaims it with our ministry of space, and our domestic and international giving.
Claiming our here I am-ness is, I think, I hope, what each of us aspires to when we profess our belief in God, claim our humanity, and claim our Christianity or other spiritual path. Claiming “here I am” is a testament to faith – a willingness to be vulnerable, to step into the unknown, to take a chance on God’s love for us regardless of the cost or outcome. Here I am isn’t about being or doing right, or wearing a mantle of righteousness. It’s about intent. Here I am and who I am are all about relationship with God and all of God’s creation. There isn’t, or shouldn’t be an expectation of success, whatever that may be. Indeed, as Pat said recently in a sermon, failure can be sacred. (You could also do a search on http://ted.org for several talks on the benefits of being wrong that are every bit a statement of here I am-ness.)
Several weeks ago in a sermon, Billy talked about how often he, and probably all of us, are constantly asking “Who are you?” when coming in contact with someone. As a spiritual practice, and out of pure and simple curiosity throughout my own life journey, I ask this of myself often. It is the subject of my spiritual reports. When I try to answer that question, I first have to ask myself “Where am I?” Am I participating in my life as I envision or dream of wanting to, or as my friend Wini White taught me to ask “where is God in this for me, and where am I in this for God? Can I say “Here I am?”
When I say “Here I am,” where am I these days? There isn’t a single answer to my ruminations. I am burdened by my privilege in a world so fraught with inequality and suffering. I am an artist struggling to overcome old tapes that tell me I’m not good enough, nevertheless trying to make art that sheds light on my truth. I engage with others to make a small contribution to social justice, and then get exhausted and dispirited. I spend too much time decompressing by playing online solitaire. My flawed soul aches for too many reasons, depression dogs every footstep, yet I am trying to do the best I can. I believe that it is important, even essential to take advantage of opportunities to bolster my ability to say I am in this for God, and God is in this for me, despite or because of the totality of who I am.
I found a way to say here I am a few weeks ago because of a gracious invitation by Kolya and her spouse Mark to participate in a SoulCollage workshop. You can ask Kolya or me about SoulCollage later if you’re curious, and you can see my card on the altar. There are preparatory questions, and reflective after questions to the process, and you are asked to give your card a name, or several names. I named my card luscious because when I asked “her” what she had to give me she replied: a sense of deep satisfaction and beauty like the taste and feel of a perfect cup of Ancient Trees Pu’er tea flowing across my tongue and down my throat and permeating every part of my physical and emotional body. A very “here I am” experience.
I go back to relationship again and again because without this community and several special companions, I would not be where I am, or who I am, and it frightens me to think where or who I would be without you all, without my belief in God, in Jesus, or my part in the Body of Christ.
Because I do understand that life is a paradox, the both and of every experience and breath, I am here, not quite knowing where here is. There are abundant resources for getting over this, getting through this, understanding this stage where I am. I’ve used many of them including Marjory’s soul cycle, and the SoulCollage experience I spoke of. And then, as I was nearing the end of writing this sermon I came across a book review in the New York Times of Eileen Myles’ memoir Afterglow. In writing about the book Sam Anderson gives us this: “It’s the literary equivalent of an estuary: A river flows into an ocean, and the ocean flows right back into the river, and the mixing of salt water and fresh water creates a magic zone of abundant life where young fish gather and hover and feast and grow.” I love that. Even in a place of not understanding where we are, as long as we remain open we can be that estuary. I haven’t actually read the book but I give you a quote from the book itself, cited in the review that sums up coming to terms with the part of me that doesn’t know where I am. “Yet this inbetweenness, this aloneness, hear it now, is holy.”
Rev. Susan K. Smith of Crazy Faith Ministries, http://crazyfaithministries.org, is one of my heroes. She writes a Tuesday meditation every week for the Samuel E. Proctor Foundation which I am enriched to receive. She has been part of my personal racial justice accountability and dialogue for several years, and her meditations certainly are here I am statements on her part. They often lead me to illuminating moments and challenging reflections on my own journey. I cited her earlier, and I have been known to share her wisdom as the meditation for Eyes to See, Ears to Hear, and have done so for Stewards as well. Her first meditation of 2018 opened with the following from Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s essay God is Not Silent. He has Been Silenced:
“though God is always present, that instead of us asking where God is, we ought to consider that God is asking where we are.”
I find this worth thinking about. It reflects back to my friend Wini’s meditation of where I am in this for God, and where is God in this for me. I don’t think partnering the two ideas is a stretch since Heschel’s reflection is about the totality of life, and Wini’s question is about any particular circumstance we find ourselves in. Indeed, I think they go hand in hand.
As I wind up, you will have noted no doubt that I totally ignored this week’s passage from Corinthians, and I probably always will. And I only obliquely referred to the passage from John, and glancingly referred to the Psalm though I love it. I’ve done what I could do and beg your forgiveness if you needed to hear something different or additional.
I leave you with a poem and a thought. The poem is by Angela Herrera –
This is a prayer for all the travelers
(read the full prayer in English and in Spanish on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Association at https://www.uua.org/worship/words/meditation/281574.shtml)
And everything I’ve tried so hard to articulate is God saying to us, every nanosecond of every day, “HERE I AM!” without failure. Let us put our faith in God.