Here I Am

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, September 23, 2018

The two texts we heard this morning, both speak about vocation and calling. And the choir just sang “Here I Am, Lord,” an anthem inspired by Isaiah’s call. If you compare Isaiah to other prophets in the Hebrew Bible, you’ll find that his response is different from most. There’s a pattern in these call narratives that goes like this: God appears or speaks, like from the burning bush to Moses. Then God issues the call, as in “Go see Pharaoh  and tell him to let my people go.” And the response is, “Who, me? You must be mistaken. I could never…” Moses says he’s a poor choice because he stutters. At the end, he pleads, “Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13).

In the call narratives of old, the voice comes from on high, from this mysterious unseen source with, I assume, a booming voice. It must have been intimidating, to say the least. Is it any wonder that people are reluctant to say yes? Isaiah is the rare, almost perky, exception. “Here I am! Send me!”

Parker Palmer, author of this little book, Let Your Life Speak, grew up Quaker, and though he loves that tradition, he says what it taught him about vocation and calling wasn’t helpful: this idea that the call “comes from a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet--someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach.”

The portrayals of these prophets of old make them look like superheroes; they are set apart, given an almost impossible mission, tasked with something most humans aren’t capable of. So how are we ordinary folk supposed to follow their example? 

Anyone here grow up being taught to emulate larger-than-life figures? Superheroes, or great leaders or famous people? When I was a boy I loved reading biographies, and I assumed that I was supposed to grow up and be like those heroes; maybe someone would write a book about me!

One way these stories and heroic narratives are valuable is that they articulate values and virtues which we would do well to order our lives upon; virtues that too often seem missing and forgotten these days. But that’s another sermon. For now, let’s stay with Parker Palmer and what he learned, often the hard way, about following the call; not someone else’s call, or someone else’s idea of what you ought to be doing with your life, but the call that is your own

“Today I understand vocation quite differently,” he writes, “not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”

It’s natural for us to ask one another, “What are you going to do, now that you’re graduated? What are you going to do, now that you’re grown up, or now that you’re retired? Would it make a difference if we changed our perspective from out there to in here? If we changed from asking about doing to asking about being? “Tell me who you really are. Tell me who, deep down, you long to be.” 

If you feel a yearning to do this soul-searching work, but don’t know where to start, I recommend this little book by Parker Palmer. I have several copies, if you’d like to borrow one. He says “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding: ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” 

These questions aren’t quickly answered. They are ones you have to wonder about, and live into, so that gradually you start to understand, in deeper ways, who you are, and what your nature is. That’s how you hear the calling that is your own. By listening for those little nudges and stirrings that it would be easy to dismiss. Last Sunday I talked about being receptive, making time to hear the voice that is your own, being more awake and attentive to what is going on inside as you move through your days.

There are a number of stories in the Hebrew Bible in which God calls to someone by name. And the usual response is the Hebrew word hineni, which means, “Here I am.” That’s the word Isaiah says, and that Moses says, and Abraham says, when they hear the Creator calling to them. They respond hineni, “Here I am.” One exception is in the story of the garden of Eden. After Adam has eaten the apple, God calls out, “Where are you?” And Adam doesn’t say hineni. He hides, and then makes an excuse, and then blames the woman for what he did.

When someone or something calls to us, do we answer, or turn away, or pretend we didn’t hear? It probably depends on who’s calling, and what we think they’re going to ask of us. There seems to be something in us that resists a call, especially if it asks us to try something new, or take a risk, or take a leap of faith, even faith in ourselves. 

I know there are times when an opportunity presented itself, that I have been less that courageous. When I could have stood up or spoken out against something that was wrong or unjust, and I chose to keep silent and keep the peace, rather than speak that harder truth. 

There are times when keeping silent can be a matter of survival. So please, if you have ever chosen to be silent because you were not ready to speak, or because you were not sure it was safe, don’t hear my words with any kind of judgment, or let them cause you any pain or shame. 

Isn’t it up to those of us who have more power, because of our particular identities, aren’t we compelled to use the voices and the power we do have for good? To be allies and friends to those who need our support?

I’m thinking of what’s unfolded in our country over the last week. Of what Professor Christine Blasey Ford did, when she allowed her identity to be revealed, and made public her allegations of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. As much as she wanted to keep it quiet, as much as she was concerned for her life and her family and her privacy, she found herself effectively saying, “Here I am.” Isn’t that what so many women, and some men too, have done over this last year, as the #metoo movement has emerged? Stepping out of the shadows, taking the risk of naming what previously had not been safe to say. 

Reflecting on this, a woman I know from seminary wrote this on Friday: “Victim blaming is nothing new. It’s the first tool used by those with power to try and keep their victims silent. But the world is changing—we’re finding our voices and we’re using them—even when we know it will tear our lives apart. And if that scares you, good.”

People who have been marginalized and silenced are finding their voices, and using them, and this scares people, who think existing systems of oppression are just normal, the way life should be. We’re living in a more risky time—for the truth-tellers, and for those who mean well, and want to do good, and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. And it’s good, that things are changing.  

Sometimes a calling comes so quietly that you have to listen carefully to hear it. You have time to ponder the calling and discern your response. And sometimes a calling comes crashing into our lives, and we have to decide in that moment what we are going to do. Answering this kind of call can feel like a risk. Sometimes the way ahead seems uncertain and unclear, and still, the way calls to us. Some risks are worth taking!

Parker Palmer, who knows something about this, writes, “Vocation at its deepest level is not, ‘Oh, boy, do I want to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way to live and where no one, including me, understands what I’m doing.’ Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can't not do, for reasons I'm unable to explain to anyone else and don't fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’”

The promise is that when we take these leaps of faith, we are not alone. That we’ll have companions and guides on the way. As we practice being present to our deeper selves and to these invitations, as we practice saying “Here I am,” we will find ourselves on solid ground, even as we take risks and try new things.

Most scholars believe that the later chapters of the book of Isaiah were written by a different author, writing from a different context. This person, called Second Isaiah, makes the hopeful assertion that the call and response between God and humans, “Where are you?”, “Here I am,” that this is not a one-way street. This prophet says that if we live good and faithful lives, if we do our part to love and serve one another, then when we are in need or in trouble, God will be there for us. Here is the passage:

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and (the Holy One) will say, Here I am (Isaiah 58:9).

When you wonder, “Am I all alone?”  and you cry out for help; when you call in the night, “Where are you?” out of the depths will come the reply, “Here I am.”

There is power and liberation in hearing the call that is your own. And then taking up that vocation: “As much as I can’t explain it, as much as it may scare me, this is something I can’t not do. This is who I can’t not be.” 

And when you are on that perilous way, my friends, and things get hard or trying or scary, and you call out for help, it is my faith and my prayer that when you cry out, “Where are you?” you will hear the response, loud and clear, “Here I am. Now and forever.”