When I was in seminary, our Old Testament Professor would take roll every class. She told us at the beginning of the semester we could either answer with, “Here,” “Present,” or if we were really bold, “Hineni,” which is the Hebrew word for “Here I am.” Most of us giggled and several of us used the term throughout the semester. But what I am not sure any of us realized fully was saying hineni was not simply about practicing our Biblical Hebrew or even taking attendance. As one scholar explains, the word hineni connotes “a willingness to respond with action to one’s master.”[i] So all those times we have heard those words uttered in Holy Scripture, “Here I am,” from Samuel, Moses, Abraham, Jacob, to Mary, we are not simply witnessing God taking attendance. We are witnessing a weighty exchange: from the one who utters the words being willing to respond with action, to the response God offers: a journey of difficult service.[ii]
As we gather for our Annual Meeting today, I am keenly aware of how much this has been a year of saying hineni to God. At the beginning of 2020, showing up for God was easy. We celebrated the ministry of our curate, we welcomed with gusto Presiding Bishop Curry’s message of love, we walked as pilgrims through the music and stones of the Mother Church in England, we sang the spirituals that have accompanied our black brothers and sisters for centuries. Saying hineni was easy then.
Saying hineni was a lot harder when a pandemic began ravaging our nation, when our buildings closed and all our ministries had to totally transform within days’ notice, when weeks turned to months of separation and mourning for all we missed, when our black brothers and sisters called us to task about the impact of institutional racism in our country, and when political trauma demanded we define our Christian identity. Saying hineni to God this year has indeed been an experience of being invited into a journey of difficult service.
But saying hineni this year has also been an experience is seeing the heretofore inconceivable. We went from being a church with zero commitment to broadcasting our services to being a church with daily online worship. We went from being a church where homebound members only saw an occasional visit to being a church where our homebound could see faces online they know not just in worship, but in formation and fellowship. We went from being a church who put the onus on others to walk through our church doors to get to know us, to being a church who did drive-by birthday celebrations, online live auctions, and helping newcomers “meet us” without actually meeting us in a what we thought was the best way.
When Samuel, in a sleepy, confused stupor says hineni to God three times, he has no idea what is coming. He is not a priest, he does not know that his priestly mentor will be replaced by himself, he does not know he will anoint kings, take away kingly power, and eventually watch his own sons fail as Eli’s do. And yet, when Eli helps Samuel understand what he is to do, Samuel responds the fourth time, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” His response is no longer a sleepy, obligatory response of action, but is a confident, mature embracing of the difficult, but incredible road ahead.
We are entering into another year where God is calling our name too. The arrival of vaccines at some point this year does not mean as we eventually regather we will simply go “back to normal.” No, when God calls our name this year, God is inviting us to continue saying hineni to this new journey we are on – one where we continue being committed to sharing the gospel using all the technological gifts at our disposal, where we consider the new ways God has showed us to reach our neighbors in need, where we witness to the unchurched, and where we praise God for the gift of creativity that has always been our gift here at Hickory Neck – and then use that creativity to keep saying hineni to God. As we look forward to this year, we do not simply sing hineni, “Here I am Lord.” We also boldly say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” Amen.
[i] Cory Driver, “Commentary on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]” January 17, 2021, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-samuel-31-10-11-20-6 on January 14, 2021.