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Here I am Lord


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 14, 2017

IHave you heard God's call? Were you asleep in your room when a voice called your name? "Samuel! Samuel!"..."What? Here I am!"?

As I read these words today I remembered a time when I was mad at God at 15 and went into a church to yell my anger (churches weren't locked in those days!). I heard a voice call my name -- not so dramatic as Samuel but definitely clear enough to stop me in my tracks and make me re-think my life. Have you ever had such a vivid call? Anyone? (One person raised her hand.) Oh good, then you don't think I'm completely crazy!

Were you just going about your business, mending nets, serving your family when Jesus asked you to drop everything and follow him to become "fishers of humanity"? Probably not. We have lives and families we're responsible for. We expect to continue to do our jobs.

Most of us have felt nudges and occasional inspiration. We have seen people whose lives have impressed us, or read a book or a paragraph that resonated with the core of our beings; or we've seen a movie about a historical figure who challenged us to grow.

All of us are called by God to do two things:
         1. Become our best selves, our most authentic and complete selves.
         2. To do the good and impact the world in a positive way.
Have you said, "Here I am, Lord" yet?

Today is Martin Luther King Sunday, a day to honor the memory of one man who dedicated his life to making a difference. He wasn't perfect. He was oh-so human, but he worked tirelessly for justice. He challenged all who knew him and continues to challenge us today to know that injustice for one is injustice for all. But we also know that justice gained for one brings more justice for all as well. Still we have a long way to go to fulfill his dream of the Beloved Community, what Jesus called "The Reign of God."

Last week we heard God call Jesus "My Beloved." We were reminded that we too are God's Beloved children, that in order to build the Beloved Community we must first know that we are beloved and work to see the beloved souls of all around us.
But once we know and experience our own true beloved nature we have to act with the courage and compassion God has planted in our hearts. We have to find ways to honor the work Jesus and then Martin began by building upon it. It is like building a cathedral. It may take centuries but we each do an important and beautiful part!

On Thursday, I had dinner with Rev. Thomas Crosby, our partner in ministry who works at the VA as a chaplain to veterans. That man can tell a story! He shared with me about the first MLK Sunday he preached at his VA Chapel in Menlo Park some six years ago. He read from Martin's Letter from Birmingham Jail and spoke about what Martin's legacy meant to him. And one of the oldest gentlemen in his congregation of mostly wheelchair bound men was weeping quietly through the whole service. He went to visit him as soon afterwards as he could and learned that this dear old man had served in the military when Truman was just beginning to integrate the armed services. As a black man, he experienced brutality and racism  that he thought would never end in this country. He never thought he would hear a white man, like Thomas, (raised in Mississippi and still carrying a Southern drawl) praise Dr. King.

For some of us celebrating Martin Luther King is just a habit. We take for granted that his goodness is worth honoring with a little public service. Many of us will participate in the Peninsula Multi-faith Coalition Day of Service tomorrow. But if Martin were alive today I know he would not be satisfied        with what is happening in our world. Toward the end of his life he was speaking out against the Vietnam War. He was demanding decent wages and living conditions for all. His March on Washington was not just about racism -- it was a march for jobs and justice.

Just as too many over the years have put Jesus on a pedestal and remember him as kind and holy, but not demanding too much of us, so we remember Martin as good, but not half so radical as he was!

Here are a few things he said that may make us uncomfortable:
         “Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With        this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost          all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system   works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are       going to have to change the system.”

         “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided         missiles and misguided men.”
         “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a       society that can live with its conscience.”

          “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of         social          transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the       appalling      silence of the good people.”
         “The more there are riots, the more repressive action will take place, and     the more we face the danger of a right-wing takeover and eventually a fascist        society.”

            “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most       shocking and inhumane.”

         “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

Our little church is working to become a truly Beloved Community. We need to see ourselves as Beloved. And we need to work to extend that beloved-ness to the world around us. We need to ask ourselves, What is God calling us to do? Do we dare say, Here I am, Lord. Send me!

A few years ago I was asked to speak at a local synagogue on a Friday before Martin Luther King Day about what Dr. Martin means to me. Most of you know this about me, but it may bear repeating: I grew up in a conservative all white suburb of Sacramento. I didn't meet a black person until I was a freshman in college. But even in grade school when we learned about the Civil Rights Movement I spoke up for it. In my 8th grade civics class, in 1963, one young man got frustrated with me and called out from the back of the room: "Yeah, but would you marry one?!" I was sure I would. And, of course, you know I did!
I loved to dance and knew that the best dancers were almost always black. I went dancing a lot (you know how much I love to dance!). I connected with black culture. I learned all the latest dances. I fell in love and married an African American and have two beautiful sons who are my greatest joy.
My mother disowned me, though she eventually reconsidered. She didn't meet her first grandson until he was two.
The violence of poverty had an impact on our lives. I've since learned that ghettos didn't happen by accident but were legally designed by governments throughout this nation, including in the bay area.

My husband's family was sadly typical. He lost a brother in juvenile hall ~ they claimed he had hung himself with his shoe-laces, but he was smart and not suicidal. Another brother was falsely accused of murder by his wife who later recanted but he is still in prison for life. A third brother is also in prison for life on a three strikes sentence.
In seminary, we learned that poverty can be described as dying before your time. 
Of my husband's four brothers and two sisters, only two are not in prison or dead.
All were younger than me. He is near his last days and may end his life under an overpass as he is hopelessly addicted to crack cocaine and treatment has never been fully available or helpful. He has done hard time for "assisting a sale" which means he said, "Over there." When asked where to buy drugs. Now he goes to jail regularly for vagrancy because he can't afford a place to live.

Even my beautiful sons have dealt with the dangers of racism in this country. My oldest son, Jesse, at 18, was followed by undercover cops from a bus stop on his way to visit his girlfriend, now wife, in the coffee shop where she worked. He tried to avoid them but they were determined to bust him. He knew by his father's experience that to answer their question: "Do you know where we can buy drugs?" would send him to prison. So, this straight A, college bound, teenager went back to the bus and came straight home.

Dr. King had a vision for our world that mirrors the vision of Jesus. A vision of justice and compassion for all of life. A vision we are all learning to fulfill by daring to discover what it means to be our full, authentic selves, and to use our gifts to their fullest. We are all called to do our part to build the Beloved Community, the cathedral of God's "new heaven and new earth" right here, right now. I felt called to ministry to follow the call I experienced at an early age to be my wild rebellious justice seeking self, to live out God's vision for our world. Here I am Lord. We are all called to build the Beloved Community. Here we are Lord!