Monday, August 09, 2010

Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, "Here I Am, Lord"

Sermon 8/8/10
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Here I Am, Lord


            Today we’re talking about a hymn that tied for fourth place in our Top Ten list, “Here I am, Lord.” Like we talked about with On Eagle’s Wings, Here I Am, Lord is also a song that is a product of a time of musical renewal after Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, when changes made allowed the Mass to be celebrated in the language of the people, and music to be more reflective of contemporary styles. The author is Dan Schutte, who wrote these words in the 1980s. Schutte was a founding member of the St. Louis Jesuits, a group of Catholic Jesuit musicians who focused on comteporary music for worship. Dan himself shares on his website what let him to write “Here I Am, Lord.”
            He says: When I was a young Jesuit, studying theology in Berkeley, California, a friend came to me one day asked me for a favor. "Dan, I know this is late notice, but I’m planning the diaconate ordination ceremony and need a piece of music set to the text of Isaiah chapter 6." He saw the look of shock on my face knowing I was well aware that the ceremony was only three days away. I told him that I was sick with an awful case of the flu and didn’t know if I could compose anything suitable in that short time. He encouraged me and I told him that at the very least I would try to complete something in time for the ordination.
I had always loved the particular Scripture passage (Isaiah 6) where God calls Isaiah to be his servant and messenger to the people and Isaiah responds with both hesitation and doubt, but also with a humble willingness to surrender to God. If it was going to work, it would have to be God's power and grace making it happen. Much like Isaiah I was not very sure that I could meet the request my friend had made, but I was willing to try.
I remember sitting at my desk with a blank music score in front of me and asking God to be my strength. As I sat there praying for help, I remembered also the call of Samuel, where God came calling in the middle of the night and asked Samuel to do something beyond what he thought he was capable of. I worked for two days on the piece and I remember being exhausted. I was making last minute changes to the score as I walked it over to my friend who lived several blocks away. I remember being very unsure of myself, but hoping that it would be what he had wanted for the ordination. And it was ok. It was more than ok. From the very beginning, people loved the piece and clearly identified with the dialogue between God and us that is the core of the song. In the years following, so many have spoken to me or written how they had their own experience of God "calling in the night" and being given the courage to respond.
For me, the story of “Here I Am, Lord” tells of the God who overshadows us, giving power to our stumbling words and the simple works of our hands, and making them into something that can be a grace for people. The power God gives is far beyond what we could have planned or created.
            Our epistle lesson for today from Hebrews is a chapter full of people who responded to God’s calling in the night with a bold, “Here I Am, Lord” – send me! In elemnatary school, at one of those end-of-the-year Children’s Sunday programs, my class was responsible for each student picking out and reading a favorite Bible passage. This passage from Hebrews was one of my favorites and one that I chose to read. Something appealed to me about the poetry of this passage – the repeated rhythms of “by faith, by faith, by faith,” and all the Bible stories I knew seemingly wrapped into one. In today’s selection we get a cut. We start out with perhaps the most famous verse about faith in the whole Bible. The author’s definintion: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convication of things not seen.” Then the author continues, describing the faith of the ancestors – here we read of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, but the author also writes of Abel, Noah, Enoch, David, Gideon, Samson, and others. It is a litany of faith, of those who responded to God’s call by faith.
            What do we do by faith? And how do we hear and respond to God’s call faithfully? I think that we do things by faith every single day. Beyond trusting that it is the wind that we can’t see that makes the breeze, I think it takes an amazing amount of faith just to live in this world. Sometimes I think about driving a car, and the amount of faith it takes to trust that the hundreds, maybe thousands of cars we pass will all stay in the right lane. We have to have faith in all those drivers. We usually don’t even give it much thought, and yet we’re putting our faith in other human beings who we’ve never even met. I think we perform similar acts of faith every day, in the everyday things of our lives.
            And yet, when it comes to having faith in God, we’re challenged. We’re overwhelmed. We’re full of doubts. We feel like we’re not up to what God asks of us. We’re not sure God really calls us, and we’re definitely not sure how to respond to that call. If we can have faith in each other, most of the time anyway, why is having faith in God so hard? Why is believing that God calls us so hard? I’m starting to think that part of the problem is that we make faith, God’s call, answering God’s call, such a special, unique thing in our minds. It’s kind of the same problem we have with prayer. Remember, when we talked about prayer earlier this summer, we talked about how prayer is just that – talking. It’s just that we’re talking to God. But we give prayer that special name and add all this pressure to be perfect and eloquent, and we’re suddenly a mess about talking to God. I think maybe it is the same way with faith, and answering God’s call. We have faith in things all the time. And we’re looking for direction, meaning, all the time. And then God enters, putting faith in us, seeking faith in return, and trying to give us direction, and we’re suddenly a mess.
            So why is having faith in God so hard? I think maybe we equate 'having faith in God' with the belief that God will make sure everything goes smoothly in our lives. If we only have faith, we will prosper. If we only have faith, we will be protected from harm, from evil, from disaster, from pain and loss. We set ourselves up to believe that our faith in God is actually faith in God as a sort-of guardian angel or something. But we limit ourselves and our faith, and we certainly limit God with that view of faith. For better or worse, faith in God does not guarantee us some shield of protection - at least not the kind that prevents bad things from happening in our lives. I've seen many people come to struggle and have doubts in faith because of a death of a loved one, because of loss or hardships suffered, seeing these events as a sign that God is not really there, or God does not really care, signs that faith in God is not warranted. If we’re trying to have faith in God as guardian angel, our faith will disappoint us!
But our whole biblical witness calls out to us that this is not what faith is, or what faith has been through the ages. Jesus tries to warn us throughout his teaching that our faith in God will likely cause us suffering, persecution, and bad intentions from those around us - our faith in God is no promise of a contented life, at least by society's standards. Indeed, if you read over today's passage from Hebrews, and read the rest of the chapter that we didn’t read this morning, you'll see a litany of people who had faith in God but who did not exactly have the most peaceful lives as a result. Abel is mentioned as a man of faith, and Abel was murdered by his own brother because of his faith and his brother's lack of faith. Moses had faith to lead the people from Egypt, yet never made it to the Promised Land that God described. And the author mentions the countless others who, in faith, were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, or killed throughout Christian history. On top of that, we read: “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” This is what your faith may bring you!
But before we get discouraged and figure that maybe we don’t want faith, we must turn back to the question. What is our faith all about? Our faith is in God – not God's magical powers to bless us – but in God and God's never-ending unfailing love for us. It is our faith in God, our knowledge that God loves us that gives us strength even when we have made mistakes, have sinned, have caused pain and hurt to our neighbors. It is our faith that supports us even when our lives are filled with loss or stress or worry or hardships. Our faith is in our God, that God is always with us and loving us, no matter what. It’s pretty hard to find that love anywhere else. It is faith like this that allows us to take the life-changing risks like those that the people of faith recorded in Hebrews took. They risked home, family, status, all their possession, security, shelter, even their very lives to follow God's call because in their faith they knew that God loved them and God would go with them.
Answering God’s call is actually pretty simple. We need direction. God offers one. God says, “Here I am. Where are you?” And we respond: “Here we are, God.” We follow, answer, not because we are guaranteed success in every detail, but because our faith prompts us to share the love of God that we have with others. Our hymn today is about faith and where faith will lead us. If we insist that our faith in God guarantee our protection, guarantee things go a certain way for us, our faith probably won't take us very far. But if we realize our faith in God provides us with what we really need: the knowledge of God's loving presence – then there's no limit to where God will take us.
Here I am, Lord. Is it we, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart. Amen.

             
             

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