At my ordination service in November 2010, the Rev. Dr. Bill Chidester explained why the church was gifting me with a new robe.

Bill told this story, “When I served Sycamore UCC, we were close friends with a hog farmer. We would watch one another’s children. We would have dinner and even vacation together. Once, we remarked how our daughter’s room looked like a pig stye, and our daughter said, ‘Oh, no. The farmer would never let it get this messy.’

“The farm was rather neat and clean versus what I typically picture when I think of hog farming. Yet I will never forget the smell. There is a smell that hogs produce. And it gets everywhere. Once, the farmer and his wife were heading into town, but the car was in the shop. The hog farmer said, ‘We’ll just take the truck.’ His wife countered, ‘The truck?! But what about the smell?!’ To which he replied, ‘Smell?! What smell?!”

Bill then said, “As we’re giving Luke this robe, I get the sense that he is thinking, ‘Gee. Thanks. But what about the smell?!’ And we’re asking, ‘Smell?! What smell?!’”

Sometimes we get acclimated to how things are. We don’t notice the smells. Or the clutter in the corner. We pretend that things have always been this way and that we’ve always done it this way. This is a deadly form of spiritual bypassing. I mentioned this last Sunday, how the symbols we use to point us to the holy can often become a roadblock to the holy.[1] Sometimes arguing about the changes in the liturgy, or the font of the bulletin, or what the pastors wear is avoidance of the work of welcoming, loving, and serving our neighbors which are the only three things we do here. The rest of what we do should go to bolstering the mission, not taking away from it. It reminds me of a parable from our Buddhist friends.

Once there was a great teacher, and people would flock to this guru. A school was established, and people were reaching enlightenment. One day the teacher took in a stray cat. The cat would wonder through the meditating students and suddenly no one was able to concentrate, and no one was reaching enlightenment. The students protested so the teacher tied the cat up outside. People were enlightened again.

Until one day, the guru died. An apprentice took over and the school was thriving. Until one day, the cat died. No one could concentrate, and people were no longer attaining enlightenment. “Teacher,” they cried. “How are we to reach enlightenment if we don’t have a cat tied up outside?”

What about the smell?! What about the cat?! These cries are understandable. Yet they are the sin of nostalgia.

Nostalgia is yearning for an idealized past that never was. This is a sin because it causes us to look past our present and into a false memory. When we remember, we must remember the pain as well. Often, we look past the pain and anxiety. We forget the smell, the stress, the reason we put the cat out there in the first place.

I think it is a natural thing to look back and remember. I think about the Rev. Dr. Bill Chidester often as well as my time as his associate pastor. Yet I had a lot of stressful, sleepless nights. Bill had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I was learning from him but I was also very anxious about that whole situation. It was hard. People behaved poorly in the wake of his death. Some people left the church. Some blamed me. Some might still. As hard as it was, we learned, we loved, and we were the church together. All led me to this present moment here with you. It was hard, yet I believe what Paul writes in Romans 8:28 that, “All things work together for good for those who love God.”

This is not given. Nor do things work out in some fatalistic way. Things coming out well is our choice as individuals and as a covenant community. Christ says that, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good. God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Matthew 5:45-46, is reminding us of our agency. We chose how to respond to the sun and the rain. “Do Righteousness.” We cannot just rely on tradition or hope people “just get it.” We have to act in the present. We have to work out our faith with fear and trembling for as James 2:17 states, “Faith without works is dead.”

In todays Isaiah passage, the prophet is remembering his call which was in the same year King Uzziah died. Uzziah was their best ruler since King Solomon.[2] Having King Uzziah on the throne meant peace and prosperity for the people. But Uzziah was dead, and soon the Assyrians would be threating. It felt like it would be all downhill from there. Isaiah experienced a deep sense of loss and fear for his nation’s future.

Isaiah has a vision of the Lord seated on his throne, and the train of his robe filled the temple. The temple, the holiest site the people knew, just gets the hem of God. For all its grandeur and wonder and architectural beauty, it doesn’t even come close to containing the holy.

The heavenly hosts are singing, “Holy, holy holy.” The place shook from the voice. The prophet cries woe. And here in this heavenly vision, an angel places a coal on the lips and takes away his feeling of unworthiness and guilt.

Any encounter with the divine I’ve ever had, I’ve felt humbled. A little unworthy, even a little guilty like “Who am I that the Lord shall take notice.” Yet God quickly takes that away answering, “You are my son. In you, I am well pleased.” I think any authentic encounter with the Gracious Mystery is like that. Humbling and re-affirming. We also can’t dwell there. Usually it comes with a commission as well.

“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And the prophet says, “Here I am. Send me!”

The Hebrew word here is “Hineni,” meaning “here am I”. If someone is looking for you later today, just yell “Hineni” and you’re on book. This word is used in the Bible to respond to a direct call from God, and expresses readiness to give oneself in total availability, complete presence, and willingness to fulfill the requested task. This word occurs around 8 to 10 times in key contexts in the bible.

Abraham answers God in Genesis 22:1 in response to the call. Jacob in Genesis 31:11 answers the call of the angel to return home. Moses in Exodus 3:4 responds with this word from the burning bush as he is commissioned to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Samuel keeps waking up Eli because the young man thinks that his mentor is calling him late at night. The wise Eli instructs the young prophet to answer “Hineni” next time he hears the voice. Samuel does and he receives his call from God as a prophet.[3]

When we remember this word, we remember the giants of faith who came before us. May their memories empower us to give our own “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” When the Lord calls us. There is risk in the call. We must remember how in most of our big decisions, we didn’t know the risks. We didn’t know how the story would turn out when we made those strings of decisions that led us here. When we made the decision of what to do after graduation. The choice of careers. The choice of who we would marry or maybe how little choice we get in love. Love is a great mystery. The path that led us to this worship today. All the decisions it took. Maybe we’re at peace with many of our past decisions or we have forgotten the anxiety of the past because we now know how the situations turned out.

Maybe some of us still have those decisions to make. And we might currently be in an anxious state. I believe that’s why we need mentors like I had in Bill. Yet those of us who are mentors need our mentees to remind us of the true story with all the bumps and peril. We need mentees to ask, “But what about the smell?!” They can freshen things up for us.

Oh the glory and the wonder that is intergenerational ministry! We learn from one another. We, the young, can look to our elders and wonder, “How is it that you made it here?” And they can tell us. Yet we, the elders, we must see the youth among us and not look past them into nostalgia of a time that never was. Or lament that we were younger and more agile then. I know there is pain and uncertainty that you carry as well that our society might look past. We can hear that and carry it as well.

This is how the kingdom shall come. This is how we will remember our calling. This is how we will build the covenant community of God, and re-member the body of Christ. Paul writes in 1 Corinthains 12: 27-28 “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.”

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witness. Remember this cloud yet remember them fully. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we learn as much from their triumphs as from their failings.

Even now, these strangers might become friends and those friends might become family. And the kingdom will inch closer with each holy and sacred risk you take in the attempt to turn to God and say, “Here I am. Send me.”  To be good news to your neighbors. To be balm for the wounded. Healing for the broken-hearted. Kindness in the face of hate. Justice in an unjust world. Peace in a world obsessed with war.

May you each reflect and imitate Christ as best you are able. Keep the faith. Keep doing the work. I won’t be with you this summer, yet I trust that you will remember that I’m not the church, but we are together. This musty ol’ robe needs a good dry cleaning. Thank you for the time allotted for that to happen. I’m just the guru with the cat outside… you can still obtain enlightenment this summer and under the pastoral care of Meghan. You’re in good hands.

I’ll be back sooner than we realize. Until then…. Should the divine call you… keep answering like this church has for 205 years. Doing the math, that’s 198 years without me by the way… I’m part of this but not essential… may you keep saying, “Here I am Lord. Send me!”

And may grace and peace be yours. Amen.

Works Cited


[2] New Interpreters Bible Volume VI, page 102. Scholars think the actual dates would be between 742 BCE or 736 BCE

[3] 1 Samuel 3:4-10

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