Passage: Psalm 139:1-18
Date: September 09, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Several years ago, I began meeting regularly with a spiritual director. Valued in Roman Catholic circles, spiritual directors are relatively new to Protestantism. Highly trained, they direct very little. Rather, they listen with a person. They ask questions of one's life and spirit. They reflect on what is being said. Essentially, they become trusted, knowledgeable spiritual companions. On our first visit, my spiritual director did more directing than he has at any time since. He suggested that I pray the 139th psalm; that I open myself to God's spirit through it; that I think and feel into it; that I let it work within me. At that point, it was exactly what I needed.
One of today's lectionary readings is part of that psalm, actually vs. 1-6 and 13-18, the first and third stanzas. I have added the second. Even though the poem contains 24 verses, many stop at 18, since the final ones have a dramatically different flavor. Scholars have done somersaults explaining how the last six verses actually do belong, or absolutely do not belong with the first 18. I am persuaded that they do, but I will leave them and that discussion for another time.
Deeply personal, the poet's words echo themes of trust and faith, awe and wonder. The opening stanza seems to reflect an understanding of God who is like a benevolent father, watchful and knowing. In contrast, the third stanza voices feminine characteristics for God, as one who knits, who weaves intricately in the womb of mother earth. In all, these verses reflect an amazing, mysterious, compassionate God, so overwhelming as to humble the human being. Listen. Listen to this meditation on God and our relationship with such. Ps. 139:1-18.
So, what is your experience with God, with the Holy, with the one we know in Jesus Christ? Do these words speak to you, or are they so foreign that they do not? On this summer-like fall Sunday, how is it with your spirit and with God?
While on vacation recently, as I soaked up vitamin D on the sandy bank of a river in northern California, a man I knew when we were children 50 years ago decided he wanted to talk with me about his faith. He was very pleased to tell me that all five of his children are Christians, and that a daughter is contemplating missionary work. Having been part of a tiny congregation in Missouri, they now attend a mega church in Redding. Greg told me how much he misses the close community of the former congregation, and how much they enjoy the current pastor's preaching-he uses a lot of humor to get his helpful points across. He paused a while. Then he said that the last couple of years have been pretty hard. Now, he is not quite so sure about any of it any more. He thought he understood who God was and how God acts, but now, maybe not. I let him talk and then responded, "You know, Greg, from where I am, it seems to me that we belong to a God who is far more mysterious, more elusive, and more wonder-full than I used to think." I went on, "If we could understand God, if we had God all figured out, then, for me, it would not be God. Rather, it would be something of my creating, and that would be pretty small."
Mystery and knowing. The psalm's opening lines acknowledge that God is not distant for the writer, but rather in intimate contact. Everything about the poet is known to God from observable actions to unspoken thoughts. At this point, many of us visualize a stern parental deity, correcting finger outstretched, clucking tongue, seeking to judge and condemn even that which we would keep hidden. But, not so here. Instead the poet understands God's knowledge, God's interest, God's involvement to be a wonderful blessing. I begin to hear echoes of Ps. 23: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." For this person of faith, while it was indeed awesome to contemplate the vastness, the mystery, of God's knowledge, it was neither threatening nor fearful. Rather, it was a wonder beyond comprehension.
Every Sunday, when I put on this cordless microphone, I make sure it is turned off until I enter the sanctuary. You would be very startled, and I would be quite embarrassed, if, for example, I used the restroom after putting it on, and the whole sound came into this space. The poet confesses that the microphone is always on, that nothing is hidden from God, and that is both overwhelming to imagine, and OK. I suspect few of us can say that. Most of us probably have aspects of our lives, of our beings which we like to think we can keep hidden from God. You know, if we do not acknowledge God, perhaps God is not paying attention. Like getting away with something in a classroom, or at work, or on an income tax form, or with a family member-when we are not being watched. The poet affirms the awesome omniscience of God.
Next, the writer ventures forth on flights of fantasy, wondering if there is any place in which to free oneself from God, to get away. The images are graphic if we remember ancient cosmology: land floats on a sea. Above are the heavenly lights. Below are darkness and water, a three-storey universe. Poetically, the writer asks if any way exists to become separate from God's presence. Musings go far and wide, high and deep, into light, and into darkness. Blessed assurance follows the exploration: there is no place outside the sphere of God. There is no attitude or action which can lead to an escape from the reality of God's presence, whether we know it or not. For many, this concept of God could feel deeply restrictive, imprisoning, like one is trapped by God. Who would want such a God? But, that is not the sentiment here. Instead, it is more like, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life..." from Ps. 23. Knowing that God is gracious means that living within God's purview is nothing less than a gift, regardless of where we are or what is going on in our lives. We need not fear this God.
On this psalm, Judy Cannato wrote:
When my father was dying, I felt as though I were on automatic pilot, putting one foot in front of the other-not attempting to see what lay ahead, simply holding on to the notion that what was required was to move on, one step at a time. Never had the words of Psalm 139 been so true for me. There were days that my bed was in Sheol, the place of the dead, where everything was gray and moved in slow motion, if there was any movement at all. There were other moments, like the time Dad said he felt so free that he could fly, that my spirit, too, rode on the wings of the morning. But most of my experience was somewhere in between these two extremes of depth and height. (Weavings, xvii:3, p. 40)
Many of us can look back on dark valleys in our lives, or in the lives of loved ones. Some of us walk in those even now. A member said to me last week, "The church, my faith, has always been there when I needed it." We need not fear this God.
Now comes a beautifully poetic affirmation of God's presence, even before our births, even before our knowledge or search for God. For me, these lines are wonderfully reassuring. I am one who wants to grow in faith, who practices spiritual disciplines in order to open avenues to the holy. When things do not go particularly well, then I feel like it is my fault, that I did not try hard enough, and these verses relieve me of that kind of self-judgment. It is God who knows us, who searches for us.
It was you who formed me....who knit me together...
I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
My suspicion is that few of us believe that. More often, we see our faults, our weaknesses, our shortcomings. Do I, do we ever thank God for who we are, for the wonderful, cherished, unique, gift of God we are? We proclaim that we are profoundly loved, more than we can imagine in Jesus Christ. But, how many of us take it to heart, and I mean that, enough to be glad to God for this amazing being that we actually are, and for what it means to be so valued as Christ's community? The psalmist affirms the goodness of God even in the writer's creation, intricately woven deep in mother earth. How intimate. How personal. How encompassingly affirmative. We are God's creation, and there is nothing we can do to destroy that. O that we could believe that we are valued as much as God values us, all of us, every one of us. No wonder the psalmist is overwhelmed with the magnitude of this God.
Would that we could live there, but we don't. We live in between, going back and forth: doubt/faith; believing/not believing; trusting/wanting to control; valuing/devaluing. I am so grateful for God's word to us in this psalm. And for other psalms that question God's presence, God's goodness. Together, they are who we are. They reflect our experience of life and faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister in World War II, wrote a poem about this, this humanity of ours in relationship to God. Interred in a concentration camp for attempting to assassinate Hitler, he became a spiritual leader to others, giving courage in danger, encouragement in fear. Yet listen. Listen to these words of very human faith:
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell's confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
Like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
O Lord, you have searched me and known me...even darkness is not dark to you....I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Even when I do not, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine! Amen.