Trinity 1 2018
I couldn’t resist picking that hymn this morning (Here I Am Lord by Dan Schutte), because of our Old Testament reading. You might like to keep it open in front of you. I know we have sung it a fair few times recently, and it will be sung at ordinations soon no doubt, because it speaks of calling, of sending, and it also draws inspiration from the passage from Isaiah that is frequently read on Trinity Sunday. But we had to sing it today because today is the only day in our three-year cycle of readings when we hear of the call of Samuel – the sleep-deprived boy who grew into a trustworthy prophet of the Lord who ultimately ended up anointing King David.
The author and composer Dan Schutte was studying for the priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary in Berkley, California, when a friend asked him to write something based on Isaiah 6:1-8, for an imminent diaconal ordination. With only three days before the big event, and a rotten dose of the ‘flu, Schutte set about composing both words and music, which he achieved in two days. Having done so, and exhausted from the effort, he took it to his friend, who was more than satisfied. Schutte himself said of it:
“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”.
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The song’s origins are found in the Old Testament. Two passages stand out: the passage in Isaiah in which he describes the presence of the Lord and his fear and trembling in response; which we heard read last week on Trinity Sunday, and today’s Old Testament reading about the call of Samuel. From Isaiah we get the phrase: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:5-8)
But another dimension is added in the references to Samuel’s call: “Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” (1 Samuel 3:4). The young Samuel, ministering with the old man Eli, repeatedly responds to the night-time call of God. It is a testing, a calling, a summoning, and ultimately, a sending.
For to be called is, actually, to be sent. And just as Samuel repeats his response, so do we when we sing the song: three times responding to the question from the Isaiah passage: ‘whom shall I send?’.
The text is thoroughly Trinitarian: the first verse describes God as the creator, of sea, sky, earth, light and darkness. As our New Testament reading puts it: “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6) The overtones from this and from Genesis 1 are strong. The second verse speaks of the incarnation and passion of Christ, with Jesus, bearer of ‘my people’s pain’, from whom the disciples themselves fled (Mark 14:50), speaking directly to and through us. The final stanza refers us directly to the wind and flame of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), again something very fresh in our memories at this time of year - as we sing of the life-giving power of the spirit, manifested in the ongoing life of the church, called, and sent out.
Meaningful as the words are, it is of course the tune that has played a significant part in the song’s success. Simple but effective, it has a unified rhythm which gives it its catchy feel. The popularity, success and quality of this fine modern Christian song are not in doubt, and although Schutte has written much else, this is the song for which he will remain rightly famous. There is no-one who cannot sing it, and no-one who should not sing it, for it is universal in both its message and appeal.
The reason everyone should sing it, is because it echoes sentiments that relate to each and every one of us. Calling is not some special preserve of a pharisaical few, like those whom Jesus encounters in our gospel reading. The calling of a Christian is not a calling to rules and regulations, petty commandments and the policing of the people of God, but rather a call to freedom: freedom in faith and freedom in the Spirit. When Jesus walked through the grain fields, he and his disciples were free to pluck and eat because, as he put it, the Sabbath was made for us, not we for the Sabbath. Humanity is not on the earth in order to follow the rules of creation, but rather because of them, and while the sabbath – a day of rest – is decreed for the good of all people and for the proper worship of God, it does not mean that people should starve as a consequence.
According to the Talmud, it was perfectly acceptable to go into a neighbour’s standing grain, to pluck the ears with your hand, but it was not OK to use a sickle. So some would have said that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, but these self appointed guardians of Jewish morality decided that Jesus’ disciples were not keeping the Sabbath - because they were ‘working’. Activities such as ploughing, reaping, sowing, winnowing and grinding were forbidden, and the Pharisees are a group of near-fanatics who set themselves up as arbiters of the law, how to keep it, and to report all who break it. Meanwhile these laws are defined by their own understanding. George Orwell would have been proud of them.
In deploring their, well, pharisaical nature, we might think of that lovely phrase from the hymn:
“I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.”
Meanwhile Jesus, like a good barrister, is up to the legal challenge and can cite a case which draws on precedent. Rumpole would have been proud of him!
Jesus pointed his accusers to the case of King David - king and prophet David – who broke all sorts of laws by going into the holy place and eating the loaves that were set out daily as an holy offering to God. They did this of course, because they were hungry. Not hungry in the peckish sense, but genuinely in need of sustenance in order to continue. This bread of the presence, as it was called, represented both an offering to God and the presence of God in the Tabernacle – the same Tabernacle, incidentally that Samuel lay sleeping outside with his master Eli. And we might remember that it is ultimately the prophet Samuel who calls David in from the fields of sheep to anoint him King of Israel.
So this morning we have a model for calling in the boy Samuel, and we hear of Jesus being attacked by those who were too tied up in tradition and ritual to see the goodness of God’s freedom. Jesus came to show how God’s liberating justice takes precedence over religious institutions. He came to set prisoners free, to open the eyes of the blind and make the lame walk – which, as well as having literal impact, also points us to that service which is perfect freedom – the acceptance of the new rule, which is that there are no rules, only the rule of love. For from the rule of love, all other behaviours and practices follow, and so no-one cares whether one feeds the hungry or cures the sick on any day of the week.
We might remember the last verse of Dan Shutte’s hymn:
I, the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame
I will set a feast for them.
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide
till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them.
Here the Good News for poor and lame is combined with the provision of bread in Old and New Testaments, and indeed, on our altar today, in which we also celebrate both an offering to God and the presence of God – for the bread is both bread of heaven and body of Christ. And simultaneously the offering is ourselves – in response to the call to be sent – the call to be disciples in this day and age, fraught with law-breaking as it is on so many levels - our calling is to be sent out as ambassadors of the law of the love of God.
So it is that the threefold refrain is our refrain – a refrain not of failing to do something, but of responding to our calling, whoever we are, however we are, wherever we are, in whatever ways we can live out the sending call of God’s love:
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, 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.
So be it. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 03/06/18