The Rev. Hannah Hooker preaches Year A Proper 14 (Gen. 37:1-4, 12-28; Rom. 10:5-15; Mat. 14: 22-33)
Including Paul in a sermon can be really difficult. On the one hand, Paul’s letters are a place in the bible where we get explicit theology, someone interpreting the story of the Israelites and Jesus’ teachings for us. On the other hand, we know that the church Paul built is very different from the church we are part of today, and some of Paul’s instructions seem outrageous to us. And on top of everything else, Paul’s not easy to read. He really needed an editor!
But we have very different theological problems to face than Paul did. In Paul’s day, their reality was that Christ would be back next Tuesday. What was going on on this planet was totally unimportant aside from getting ready for Christ’s return, preparing their hearts and minds, converting as many people as possible, assuring their safe passage to the heaven. Today, we don’t know when Christ will return, when the world as we know it will end, and we have come to expect more time. What happens on this planet DOES matter to us because we’re stuck with it for a while, and presumably, so are our children and grandchildren. We understand Christ entering the world as a slow in-breaking, not a swift and violent victory. So while Paul and his churches had to prepare for Christ’s imminent return, we have to wrestle with how to make things right here on earth, to prepare for Christ’s eventual return. But. That doesn’t mean that we can discount the letters of Paul.
Paul is sure that regardless of what the theological struggle is, we, the people of God, have a role to play, a job to do, have work to be done, a call to answer. Paul knew that he could write letter after letter after letter, but the people wouldn’t really start getting it until they starting doing it. In his letter to the Romans this morning, Paul says, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” Word has gotten to Paul that the Romans are having a theological struggle, and Paul’s response is, ‘so what are you going to do about it? Answer the call. Then, and only then, will you begin to understand what God is doing in the world.’
Our story is filled with examples of approaching a struggle by answering God’s call to action. In Genesis this morning, Jacob calls his son Joseph, and Joseph answers, “Here I am.” This is one of my favorite Hebrew phrases. “Hineni.” Here I am. Sometimes in the office when Susan hollers at me, I respond, “Hineni!” She hates it. This morning, Joseph becomes the third ancestor to respond to a call with this phrase. It’s important because it doesn’t just mean I’m alive in this place you’ve found me. It means I’m here, I’m present, I’m ready, send me. Many of you might think of the song I the Lord of Sea and Sky. In the transition from verse to chorus, the lyrics are “whom shall I send/here I am Lord/is it I, Lord.” That’s “Hineni.” Here I am.
So Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and later Moses will all respond this way. Our founding fathers, so to speak, set the example for us which Paul would later affirm: when the world is confusing and painful, that’s when God is calling. Answer the call. Jesus says in in many ways, such as, ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ In this morning’s gospel, Jesus simply says, “come,” as he beckons Peter out onto the water. Paul phrases it as a questions, ‘how are they to know?’ And none of these figures, no ancestor or disciple, ever truly understands God’s power and purpose until they stop thinking about it and start living into it. It can be as simple as opening the Bible or thinking only nice thoughts about the man who cut you off in traffic, as complex as participating in a protest or donating your time and money to a shelter, and literally everything in between.
We have no shortage of theological problems in our midst this morning. We have lost an unfortunate number of St. Mark’s family members in recent years and it just doesn’t make sense. We are a congregation of different ages, races, genders, sexualities, political ideologies, and sometimes, we don’t get along, but we have to figure out a way to make sense of all of us coming to the same table week after week. How do we worship with people who aren’t anything like us? And in a world of such abundance, how are we to understand the people who come to eat here on Saturdays because they literally have nowhere else to go, no other way to eat? As Christians, people of the resurrection, of hope, how can starvation and homelessness make any sense? And every single one of us has our own pain and fear in this world, and the task of discerning how God is at work within it.
I’m sure we’d all love one 8-10 minute sermon that explains all of these things in a way we can understand. Or perhaps we’d like God to simply smite everyone who votes differently from us, and magically provide housing for every homeless person in Jonesboro. We would also, I’m sure, love for our Scripture to neatly unpack all our theological dilemmas instead of requiring all the prayer and study that it does. But in truth, our scripture, the story of our people, sends a different message about the solution to the problems of our world. In the face of all of these struggles, physical, emotional, theological, that keep us up at night, we are being called to action. And our response should be, “Hineni.” Here I am. It is only through responding to the call to action that we will come to understand the world that God has made.
I see us do it all the time. We help each other, build each other up, we come to this table for refreshment, which is our foundation. We tune in to the needs of this community and ask how we can help. This church offers aid and sanctuary to those who need it most, and we have so many members here who have devoted their lives to the needs of others, providing inspiration for us all, and St. Mark’s is poised to grow into an even more incredible example of answering the call, as we begin another year of formation and prepare our hearts and minds for a new rector. So this week, when we read a headline that disturbs us, when we see someone asking for money on the roadside, when we learn that someone we love has lost their battle with illness, when God has promised us hope for the Kingdom and yet white supremacists march in Charlottesville, we will likely ask why, God?
But just think. What would it look like if everyone in this room, for one afternoon, instead of pondering the complexities of the world and the evil that is lurking within it, only to give up in frustration and turn to the privileges that comfort us, chose to say ‘here I am’ and do something about it. How radically different might this community be? So, how do we get back to saying “Hineni” with confidence like the ancestors did? How will you be the feet that Paul is talking about? How will you step off the boat like Jesus asks us to? How will you approach the world and all its struggles by saying “send me?”