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Here I Am

June 17, 2012

Bible Reading

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”

(Exodus 3:1-12)


Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

(John 4:1-24)

Reading from Swedenborg

[After death,] one can tell evil spirits from good ones particularly by the fact that the evil ones pay close attention when conversation is about external concerns and little attention when it is about more inward matters, about what is true and what is good in regard to the church and heaven. They do hear such things, but without any real attention or pleasure. One can also identify them by the fact that they consistently turn toward certain regions, and when they are left to themselves follow paths that lead to them. One can tell what love is leading them from the regions and the paths that they follow.

(Heaven and Hell 496)


All the spirits who arrive from the world are put in touch with some community in heaven or some community in hell. However, this applies only to their deeper natures, and their deeper natures are not apparent to them as long as they are focused on their outward concerns. This is because their outward concerns cloak their inner ones, especially for people most deeply involved in evil. However, they come out into the open when they arrive at the second state because there their deeper levels are opened and their outer ones become dormant.

(Heaven and Hell 497)

Sermon

And when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the midst of the bush and said, “Moses! Moses!” and he said, “Here am I.” Exodus 3:4

My basic theme this morning is a very simple one: that the Lord speaks to us wherever we are, so if we want to hear what the Lord is trying to tell us, we must recognize where we are. This is not primarily a matter of our physical location, as our third reading suggests. Each of us, it says, will be put in touch with some community in heaven or in hell, but only as to our deeper natures; and our concern with outward matters “cloaks” our awareness of our inner location.

We will not find our way to the eternal community where we belong until we are freed from our preoccupation with our outward location. That is why we begin our worship services with time to reflect on “where we are” on our life journey. For much of each week, we are necessarily concerned with “external” concerns. We have responsibilities. We need to be at particular places at particular times, taking care of particular things. We need physical food, physical exercise, and physical rest in order to live our lives as human beings. We need shelter and transportation. Granted, most people in this world do not have as many “things” as we do, but the technology of “things” amplifies our individual abilities and enables us to do far more than our ancestors could, at least on the physical level. Swedenborg wrote thousands and thousands of pages with a quill pen. He spent countless hours making his own indexes of the Bible. Imagine what he could have done with a computer!

He could certainly have written more, but would he have written better? I suspect that most serious Swedenborgian readers have had times when they wish he had written less. In fact, there seems to be a growing concern that the sheer speed of computers is degrading our capacity for sustained concentration and nourishing the spread of attention deficit disorder.

Magicians deceive us by drawing our attention to something obvious so that we do not notice something less obvious. This could serve as a kind of parable for the way the business of the observable world distracts us from what is going on inside ourselves. A recent book about Bernard Madoff describes how he began by pushing the envelope just a little, until he found himself in a position where he was faced with a choice between financial disaster and financial chicanery. It sounds as though he did not start out with the intent to defraud but was so intent on material wealth that he avoided observing the gradual erosion of his integrity. He was acutely aware of where he was and where he was going financially, but quite blind to where he was and where he was going ethically.

Incidentally, the story suggests that the same was true of any number of people and institutions who profited from him. In retrospect, it is clear that they did not understand how his funds so consistently far outperformed all others, and wound up having to admit that they “should have known.” They simply did not want to know, again distracted by the growth of their wealth.

We can be very sure that the Lord was constantly asking them the same question he asks Adam, the Adam in us all, at the beginning—”Where are you?” Adam, in the Genesis story, gives a most adequate answer. “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). That is, he recognized not only where he was physically but where he was spiritually—afraid, ashamed. Madoff was clearly afraid of financial failure, and we can be quite sure he was afraid of discovering that he was ashamed. Had he admitted that fear of shame, he would have heard what the Lord was asking him. He would have been in the place to which the Lord was speaking.

Let us suppose for a moment, then, that the Lord is asking us at the present moment, “Where are you?” How would we frame our answer? What would be our reference points, our map coordinates?

Ultimately, the most accessible and significant ones would be our relationships with each other. Each of us has a unique place in the total fabric of humanity. No two people have experienced the same family life from the same perspective. Think of identical twins sitting side by side in a first-grade class. Even then, they see the teacher from slightly different perspectives and have different classmates sitting next to them. When they talk to each other, one is listener when the other is speaker. As time goes on they will read different books, marry different spouses, have different children, work at different jobs. No matter how much they have in common, neither will ever be able to occupy the same place in the human fabric as the other.

So when the Lord asks us where we are, this is asking whether we are where we belong in the fabric of human relationships. Are we where we best fit, where our particular gifts and interests are needed, and where our needs are best supplied? Are we with the people who best understand and love us, the people whom we best understand and love?

We should not expect crystal-clear answers, but if we are willing to hear the question at all, we will get a least some glimmers of clarity; and those glimmers will inevitably raise the further question, “Where are you going?”

This is actually a more important question than the first. No matter where we find ourselves, we can turn either toward the Lord or away. We can try to understand better or can try to defend our present understanding. The central effort of the Lord’s providence is to enable us to act “in freedom according to reason” (Divine Providence 71-99), which means that we can assess our circumstances and our goals and can alter our course accordingly.

It means also that everyone we meet has this same freedom, that everyone we meet in is process, in spiritual motion. However, it is by no means true that we are equally free in every sense. We vary widely in our gifts, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Individuals who have lived all their lives in a culture of violence cannot simply decide all at once to trust others. We are all conditioned by our upbringing in many subtle ways, and we do not realize how much we take for granted.

When we meet someone new, it is entirely appropriate that we begin conversation by trying to find common ground. We cannot be sure that we share the same political viewpoint, so we are not likely to declare ourselves on that issue. We can be quite sure, though, that we are both experiencing the same kind of weather. That is usually a safe place to start. Under some circumstances, it is appropriate to begin with questions like “What brings you here?” In any circumstances, it is appropriate to show a willingness to listen, to give the priceless gift of attention.

One particular word comes to mind in this context: “viewpoint.” Physically, what we can see depends on where we are situated. From where you are sitting right now, each of you has a unique visual field, most like that of the individuals closest to you, but not identical. At the same time, these views are consistent with each other, so that taken all together, they add up to a more complete picture of this situation than any one of them by itself.

Very much the same can be said of our location in the fabric of human thought and feeling. Because of a combination of our nature and our nurture, each of us has a unique perspective on the world of relationships, sees that world from a unique viewpoint. I look at the situation in Japan or in Libya or in Bath or in this church, and “from where I stand,” this is what I see.

As we get to know others, we discover their viewpoints, never identical to ours. Some we find compatible with our own, some less so, and some so different as to be alarming. Where we truly belong is where there is enough compatibility to make exchange possible and enough difference to make exchange worthwhile.

Obviously, we are not likely to find our place if we start with the assumption that our own viewpoint is the only one that is valid, and it is very difficult indeed to find a constructive “place” in relation to anyone who operates from that assumption. This is what makes it necessary to recognize that we are all in process, that no viewpoint—including our own—is necessarily “final.” We all have a lot to learn. Where we need to be going is toward clearer understanding and warmer appreciation.

This brings us back to our third reading with its picture of our external concerns cloaking our inner ones. We all will ultimately shed this cloak when our physical bodies give out. As they move toward that event, they become less and less effective, less and less satisfying. It is as though they were gradually getting out of the way, making it easier for us to see past them and to discover where we are as to our minds and hearts.

The image comes to mind of the body as a radio station whose signal is gradually fading, enabling us to hear a subtler and finer kind of music. Sadly, some of us resist this fading and keep turning up the volume, fighting harder and harder to maintain the illusion of youth.

How much wiser, how much more practical it is to turn down the earthly volume and listen to what the Lord is trying to say to us! One way or another, we will find ourselves asked “Where are you? Where are you going?” Isaiah heard this question in a particularly searching form. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” He answered both the “where” and “whither” implications of these questions with his response: “Here am I. Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). Amen.

Rev. Dr. George F. Dole