I started preparing a totally different sermon than the one I am about to preach. I had it practically finished, and so when I said to my family the other night that I needed to work on my sermon, my daughter said, “I thought you were done” to which I responded, “I’m not using that one. I don’t write sermons, sermons write me and there is a sermon that has been writing me all year that I need to get out.”
And so I started writing it down, but I started going in too many directions, so I had Juniper read over it and she helped me rearrange and focus.
So this is that sermon. The sermon that has haunted and guided and written me all year.
Let us pray.
Holy God who is present to us in all times and in all ways. You are closer than our next breath. You know all of our days before one of them came to be. You have searched us and know us. Help us to be present to you and to each other as we depend on Your Spirit’s comfort, wisdom and peace. Amen
Several years ago, I ran across a poem and then a blog by Macrina Wiederkehr. On her blog, she wrote about choosing a word for the year. This was not a new idea to me, but I thought I’d give it a try. So I picked a word and I think I forgot it by January 15th. So I tried again the next year and again didn’t really have follow through. In 2016, over the holiday break, I read a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer entitled Here I Am which is a pretty messed up story about some pretty messed up people and a family falling apart. But, in the midst of the story was such a beautiful through-line which resonated with my soul. The title comes from the Hebrew word, hineni, which means “here I am.” And so, with Jonathan and Macrina’s help, I chose hineni for my word for 2017.
So this totally new-to-me word cropped up in unexpected places. In the song “You Want it Darker” by Leonard Cohen on his last recording before his death, hineni appears in the chorus. When asked what it meant, he responded, “That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul.”
A new acquaintance had it tattooed on his forearm. The band Gungor has a beautiful song called “Every Breath” which ends with a haunting repetition of the phrase “Here I am.” At times of deep joy and also of deep desperation, I found myself with arms outstretched to God saying “Here I am, hineni.” And so, I kept my word all year long.
There are 2 ways to say “here I am” in Hebrew – one of them is poe which is like saying “here” when called from an attendance sheet. The other, hineni, has a deeper sense to it. Hineni implies readiness, total availability, an “at your service” all-in kind of response. Rabbi Ari Kaiman describes it this way, “Hineini means, ‘I am here for you fully, with the trust and vulnerability to do whatever it is you ask of me.’”
My text for this morning is Genesis 22:1-14 and I wish it wasn’t. It’s an upsetting story to say the least, but I, like some of you, grew up in the church coloring pictures of it and reciting the facts as if they were no big deal. The story is Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The reason that I chose this text is that it is the Torah portion for the eldest son, Sam’s bar mitzvah in the book, Here I Am. Before reading this book, I must admit, I had no idea that there is a part of the celebration, the bar mitzvah speech, where the 13 year old boy speaks on the Torah portion for the week of his birthday. He is called upon to reflect on the scriptures and tell those gathered how it spoke to him and/or how it applies to his life. And so instead of reading the text, I want to tell you the story in Sam’s words:
God’s Test of Abraham is written like this: “sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’, ‘here I am’, Abraham replied”. Most people assume that the test is what follows:God Asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But I think it could also be read that the test was when He called to him. Abraham didn’t say “what do you want?” He didn’t say, “Yes?” He answered with a statement: “Here I am.” Whatever God needs or wants, Abraham is wholly present for Him, without conditions or reservations or need for explanation.” That word, hineni – here I am – comes up two other times in the portion. When Abraham is taking Isaac up Mount Moriah, Isaac becomes aware of what they are doing, and how [messed] up it is. He knows that he is about to be the sacrifice, in the way all kids always do when it’s about to happen. It says: “And Isaac said to Abraham, his father, ‘My father!’ and he said ‘Here I am, my son’. And Isaac said, ‘Here is the fire and the wood but where is the sheep for the offering?’ And Abraham said ‘God will see to the sheep for the offering, my son.’” Isaac doesn’t say “Father”, he says, “My father”. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, but is also Isaac’s father, his personal father. And Abraham doesn’t ask, “what do you want?” He says “Here I am”. When God asks for Abraham, Abraham is wholly present for God. When Isaac asks for Abraham, Abraham is wholly present for his son - But how can that be possible? God is Asking Abraham to kill Isaac and Isaac is asking his father to protect him. How Can Abraham be two directly opposing things at once? (…) My bar mitzvah portion is about many things, but I think it is primarily about who we are wholly there for and how that, more than anything else, defines our identity.
It was this bar mitzvah speech that stayed with me throughout the year as I meditated on Hineni. Who am I wholly there for and how is that, more than anything else, defining my identity? What does it mean to be wholly there for and available and present to someone else or to God?
When I read this story in the past, because of the Sunday school picture familiarity of it, I didn’t think about this being about a real person. I didn’t think about how Abraham could have said no. Or about whether or not he talked it over with his wife or anyone else. I didn’t think about the tedium of getting the servants and animals and Isaac ready to go on this journey and how every excruciating moment of it must have felt like a lifetime. Or about how old Abraham was. He and God had already been through a lot and the promised son had finally come. Abraham might have thought it was time to sit back and relax and enjoy his final days.
Eliezer Berkovits in his book, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps, imagines what Abraham must have been saying to God in those days (three days, as a matter of fact) as he is preparing and traveling to make the sacrifice:
“In this situation I do not understand You. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You, because it is You and me, because it is us. . . . Almighty God! What you are asking of me is terrible. . . . But I have known you, my God. You have loved me and I love You. My God, you are breaking Your word to me. . . . Yet I trust You; I trust You.”
Abraham had waited decades for this promised child that he is marching up the mountain to kill. And when Isaac calls to him and says, “My father?” Abraham says, “Here I am.” How could Abraham be present to Isaac at that moment? The same way we are present to our loved ones as they suffering through an illness or heartbreak. The same way we are present to those who have been discarded and undervalued. This dark and unexplainable place where we feel terrified - where easy answers won’t work.
Ellen F. Davis, in her essay The Blinding Horror of Abraham’s Faith says:
This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagine God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or deny that God cares at all, or deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it—because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind. To deny God any meaningful place in your life would be to deny your own existence. And so you are stuck with your pain and your incomprehension, and the only way to move at all is to move toward God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith.
This type of faith is a step out of the boat type of faith. Defying the laws of gravity and nature and seemingly God himself, we trust that we have heard His voice and we step out. And as long as we have our eyes on Him, the water becomes like firm ground.
We sing this song nowadays, this “Oceans” song by Hillsong United, that has a repeated bridge that says “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me.”
Do we mean that? How can we possibly mean that? If I am honest with myself, the song of my heart is “Spirit, lead me where my trust isn’t stretched too far, let me walk on the nice safe ground where I can reach You if I need You.” But that isn’t very catchy or inspirational and it has nothing to do with faith.
We can only be present to others because God has been, and is, and will be present to us. When Abraham hears God’s voice, he responds, “Hineni, here I am” because he knows God and is available to Him. And when God asks him this unthinkable thing, this thing that seems to go against God’s very nature, he reaches in to the deepest reserves of his faith and obeys.
A heartbreaking obedience drawn from a reservoir of faith.
And then in the midst of the painful walk up the mountain, when Isaac calls out to him, Abraham says Here I am, son. I’m here. I’m here.
Here I am and I don’t have any answers. Here I am and I love you. Here I am and God is here too and He will provide. I don’t know how, but I know Him.
This is the essence of faith. We can only be authentically and unreservedly available to others as much as we have been authentically and unreservedly available to God. Otherwise, when the darkness comes and we feel like we and everyone around us will be swallowed up, our fear will drown us.
When I was a teenager, my cousin died in a car accident. The church that my aunt and uncle attended had a Laity Sunday where the lay leader of the church gives the sermon. That year, my uncle was the lay leader and the Sunday after my cousin died was Laity Sunday. The pastor and staff of the church offered to find someone else, but my uncle said he wanted to go ahead with it as planned. I remember sitting in the sanctuary that Sunday knowing that if he could show up for God that morning that God must be real and knowable and more than anything a co-sufferer with those who suffer.
As my uncle talked about faith, he compared it to crabgrass. He went on to describe a patch growing in his patio - as he went to remove the weed, he reached down and pulled and almost fell on his face. This is why he said that faith is like crabgrass - because you don’t know how strong it is until you try to uproot it.
At the end of the Here I Am book, Sam’s younger brother is preparing his bar mitzvah speech. His Torah portion is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.
He has this to say, “It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas. They’re close to us—sometimes so close we think they are part of us—and then, at some point, they aren’t close anymore. They go away. Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is struggle.”
And so we struggle. We struggle to be present to each other. To not let go of each other without a fight. To hold on in good times and bad.
And we struggle to be present to God. To hear His voice. To find the courage to say “here I am” when He calls. "I am here for you fully, with the trust and vulnerability to do whatever it is you ask of me."
I want to close with the last part of the Gungor song, “Every Breath.” As you listen to the words as they are repeated, I encourage you to ask God to help you say Hineni to Him today. Here I am! Gungor song, start at 3:42
Isaiah 6:6-8 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.” Then I heard the Lord asking, “Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?”
I said, “Here I am. Send me.”