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You Again

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Psalm 139:1-18

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 

 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. 

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.  In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

The theme song from the 1980s sitcom Cheers proclaims the joy of going “Where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” We all need such a place because it feels good to be known.  Every day, it seems, we are identified by our social security number, our account number, our user ID and password.  How many people we interact with each day even know our name?  Much less know us, as individuals?

I don’t want to be a number. I don’t want to be invisible.  I want to be seen.  And known.  And loved.

Our psalm today is about being known by God. Martin Buber, an early twentieth-century Jewish philosopher, wrote similar words in a poem about the relationship between God and humans:

Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
You! You! You!

Sky is You! Earth is you!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end!
Only You; You again; always You!
You! You! You!

The message isn’t only that God is with us, but that God knows us—intimately.

Our scripture passage begins with “You have searched me.” The word in the original language has a sense of digging into.  It has even been translated as “you have excavated me.”  Or, as one preacher I read says, “God digs you.  When no one else notices you — when no one else has the time to bother – God searches you.   You are endlessly, fascinatingly interesting to God.  God doesn’t get tired of you.  God searches you.  God knows you.

This is the God whose eye is on the sparrow. This is the God who keeps your tears in a bottle.           This is the God who took out the divine knitting needles and [knitted] you together, stitch by stitch, in your mother’s womb.  This is the God who tallies the number of every hair on your head – admittedly easier for some of us than others, but still … This is the God for whom there are no anonymous sheep, to whom nobody is a write-off, for whom no one is lost in the crowd.”[1]  You are known by God.

For many years, this psalm has been used to great affect by those who oppose abortion rights. Ultrasound images are emblazoned with these words:

          For it was you who formed my inward parts;

          you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

          I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

But in recent years, this exact same passage has been used by a very different constituency: the gay rights movement. Individuals wrestling with whether they have to give up who God made them to be in order for God to love them, have found comfort in these same words:

          For it was you who formed my inward parts;

          you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

          I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

          Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

This psalm has been used to say, “God formed me—God knitted me—and God’s works are wonderful . . . so I must be OK, too.[2]

This psalm boldly, emphatically declares: God knows me. Intimately.

Of course, being known has its drawbacks. Do you have that one friend who you can’t fool?           Everybody else accepts your answer of “Fine, thanks, and you?” but that friend takes one look at you and says, “No, you’re not.  What’s wrong?”  Sometimes that’s a blessing, and sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes even you have been fooled by your “fine, thanks” answer and then your friend calls you on it and you realize that you’re not fine, not fine at all, and suddenly you’re fighting tears in the produce section at Hannaford’s.  It’s good to be known.  Sometimes.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable being known, being seen, even by God. And that’s where this psalm gets a little difficult.  Earlier I said that the phrase “search me” has the sense of digging into, even excavated.  Well, what if I don’t want to be excavated?      What if I don’t want anybody digging into me, revealing my secrets?

Verse 5 says: You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

“The Hebrew word for ‘hem in’ used here doesn’t mean cuddle. It doesn’t refer to a protective embrace, a great big bear hug, or to being wrapped in bubble wrap.  The word for ‘hem in’ is the word used when a city is laid under siege. ‘You besiege me, O God. . . . You entrap me.  You encircle me.  You beleaguer me, behind and before.  You will not leave me alone.’”[3]

This puts a whole different spin on the psalm, and we wonder if it is a psalm of praise or possibly a psalm of lament. It reminds me of something I saw online about different styles of font.  When written in flowing script, the words “I will always find you” have a romantic quality, or perhaps a parental one; they are a promise that our loved one will find us if we get lost.  But put those same words in a font used for horror movies, with letters that appear to be dripping and the words take on a very different connotation: I will always find you.

Listen to the scripture again.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. . . . If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you.

There is no place to hide. “Clarence Jordan [author of the Cotton Patch Gospels] said once that as long as God was an idea, an abstraction, a feeling, we were fine with God.  Then Jesus showed up, in the flesh, looking at us with those excavating eyes.  God was suddenly as real and tangible on earth as in heaven – and we decided it wasn’t a good place for God to be.  Jordan says that it felt like there was . . . a nun at the bar, or a monk at the bachelor party.  So we said, ‘Jesus, we have to watch ourselves too much around you.  We feel hemmed in around you. Now you go back home where you belong and be a good God,   and maybe we’ll see you of a Sunday morning.’  Then we rolled the stone in front of the tomb. . . . We don’t want anyone, even God, to know everything about us,no matter how much we say otherwise.  That’s part of the reason we killed Jesus.     We couldn’t stand the suffocating intimacy of our salvation.”[4]

Intimacy is a scary thing. In my favorite theological novel author Mary Doria Russell writes, “You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting that you’re in love?  You are just naked.  You put yourself in harm’s way and you lay down all your defenses.  No clothes, no weapons.  Nowhere to hide.  Completely vulnerable.  The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe that the other person loves you back…”[5]

And that’s how we can tolerate intimacy with a God who knows us completely: by also believing that we are loved. Being fully known also frees us.  It frees us from the burden of pretending.  It frees us from the weight of keeping up appearances.  It frees us from the pain of knowing we are not living up to expectations and yet praying that everybody else is fooled into thinking we are.  It frees us from the fear that if someone really knew us, they wouldn’t love us.

Being fully known frees us to be fully loved . . . because this God who knows us fully also loves us unconditionally. This God who knows our secrets loves us without limit.  This God who knows everything we’ve ever done—think about it! — everything we’ve ever considered doing, everything we may one day do wrong, still loves us with a greater, purer love than we can ever understand.

Desmond Tutu always used to tell us in class:

The bad news is: there is nothing you can ever do to make God love you more.

The good news is: there is nothing you can ever do to make God love you less.

I wish I could end my sermon here. It’s a good, happy, loving ending.  But the psalm doesn’t end there.  I once heard a preaching professor say: “If you want to preach an easy sermon, never let your eyes stray to the verses before or after what’s in the lectionary.”  He was right.

The next verses read:

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”

With all this talk of God knowing us and loving us, what are we to do with the talk of enemies and hatred in the very next breath? It is helpful to note that the psalmist isn’t talking about his personal enemies, but about those who have set themselves as enemies of God.  In the context of this psalm, it is interesting “to imagine what it might be like to be so convinced of one’s intimate connection with God that . . . an assault on God’s identity is an assault on oneself.”[6]

Still, I’m not comfortable with the language of enemies, either enemies of me or enemies of God. How do we go about naming the enemies in our world?  People of other faiths are certainly not our enemies.  “ Other nations? Other armies? Other ideals?  Or [maybe] our enemies are [those things] which keep the Spirit from moving in our lives.”[7]  Maybe the questions we need to ask are:

What is the enemy of my joy?  What is the enemy of my ability to say, as the psalmist does,

“Search me, God, and know me”?

What is the enemy of my ability to believe that I am loved?

That is an enemy worth fighting.

 

[1] Troxler, Jeremy. “Hemmed In.” Faith & Leadership. www.faithandleadership.com.

[2] Biema, David Van. “Psalm 139 Used by Pro-Life, Gay Rights Groups.” The Third Metric, September 5, 2013.

[3] Troxler

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow.

[6] Hannan, Shauna. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2329

[7] Scibienski, Beth. http://www.bethscib.com/lectionary-reflections/search-us-again-o-god

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