September 4, 2022
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT
Psalm 139 , NRSV
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.
If there were one promotional phrase, one bumper sticker from scripture to promote God and the value of a religion that finds its hope in God, this first line from Psalm 139 would be it…..in my humble opinion.
Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.
And, in my humble opinion, Psalm 139 is a perfect passage of scripture for this moment in time.
It’s a moment in this nation and in the wider world we need some grounding for hope; some reason to believe that the violence and the racism and the bullying and the greed and the seeming wholesale destruction of our planet, our political system, our civility as one nation under God, our sense of security, and a hundred other losses will some how, some day stop.
We need a reason to hope in this weary and broken world; in this world in which we seem to have forgotten how wondrously and marvelously, albeit differently, made is each and every one of us. We are each and every one of us created by the same God. Who is neither a Democrat, nor a Republican, nor even an Independent. Who is neither white nor black nor yellow nor any other shade of the rainbow. Who is neither American, nor Russian, nor Chinese, nor any other nationality. Our Creator is beyond every label. And etched on every heart.
Psalm 139 is a bit of an odd duck in our psalter. It is the only psalm in the book that focuses on the individual. In fact, it might even be the only place in the entire Hebrew Bible where the state or fate of the individual is not only addressed, but stressed.
The Hebrew Bible is almost always the story of the people of God; never a single person of God. But Psalm 139 speaks directly and specifically about the intimacy of our personal relationship with and to God.
The first 18 verses of the psalm are divided into three parts.
Part one, verses 1-6 say unequivocally that God knows us through and through, top to bottom, stem to stern, inside and out. Yahweh, You (and it is the emphatic you) have searched me and You know me.
Part two, verses 7- 12 say that no matter where we flee, or how far we run, or how dark the hole in which we are buried, God will always find us. Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? And the unequivocal answer is, loosely translated, nowhere.
And then part three, verses 13-18 insist that God knows us fully and stays with us always because God has woven every thread of our being into the tapestry of our unique selves by hand…..intentionally….joyously…..without one single regret. No matter who we think we are.
No matter how many regrets we have for ourselves, God has none. Not a one.
This psalm is the story of who each and every one of us is as beloved individuals of God’s wondrous creativity to serve God’s unfathomable purpose. And so it is very personal. The God of Psalm 139 is not Our Father who art in heaven. The God of Psalm 139 is the author of our existence who dwells within us right here on earth. The God in whom we live and move and have our being, as it says in the Book of Acts. The God who knows us fully and from whom there is no escape – a God who is with us always because we are God’s most precious creation; and not just created, not just constituted as the work of a divine potter, as this morning’s reading from Jeremiah says.
But in Psalm 139 God has not just made us, God has knit us together –woven us out of whole divinely endowed cloth….the first knitting ministry, as it were! And we are the pearls of God’s labor.
It’s an image of God’s creativity as a process of careful integration and intricate design. We are the way we are, every mole and freckle, every nook and cranny, every warp and woof, knit and pearl of our being is by God’s grace-filled design. And this is, as I see it, a sort of good news / bad news situation.
Because it means that where ever we go, however hard we try, we cannot escape the knowing breath of God. We cannot preclude the unbearable vulnerability that comes with God’s unyielding attention and interest. However desperate we feel to free our fragile egos from the terrifying assurance that we are simply and inherently good enough, that our brokenness may not be a mistake or a failure, but may in fact be by design – whatever it is that haunts us in our self-proclaimed unworthiness, it is not a fatal flaw or an original sin, but rather a beloved built-in opportunity for growth and reconciliation and eventual magnificence – an opportunity that would hardly exist if we were perfect from the get-go…..which of course we are, as this psalm tells us in no uncertain words.
But here, then, “perfect” requires some serious revision and redefinition, does it not?
For if we are awesomely and wondrously made – perfection, each and every one of us, in our own unique ways – then our old connotation of perfection, our old notion that perfection is some universally objective quality that precludes cracks or wrinkles or character – the idea of perfection as that without room for improvement, well, that is clearly not what God intended in God’s perfect creation of humanity. For we are indeed a collection of uniquely perfect opportunities for magnificent creativity and growth, each with our own unique cracks and unsightly crevasses.
And so this psalm speaks not only of our magnificence, but also of our vulnerability, our built-in propensity for falling down as a part of our wondrous and awesome creation. Let us stop lamenting our failures. They are built in.
But this psalm speaks to that inner fear that each of us has experienced at one point or another in our perfectly insecure lives. That deep and abiding suspicion that if we were truly known…that if our true selves were ever revealed, we would be sooooo busted. Busted as the unworthy children that we know ourselves to be. Busted as worthless, shameful, unlovable failures.
This is our secret fear….well, I’ll just speak for myself here, but if the shoe fits….then this psalm may fit you, too. But, it assures us that although we ARE known, fully, completely, without any privacy whatsoever when it comes to God, although God sees it all, still we are loved beyond our wildest dreams; and not just loved, adored.
We are each the center of God’s full attention. And so God is inescapable.
But the Good News in this psalm is not that God is inescapable, it is that only God is inescapable.
Which is why this psalm comes not a moment too soon in this season of vicious and seemingly hopeless political warfare. A moment in our American history when our ugly arrogant heads have been given full throated voices and our self-centered self-righteousness plays out in unbridled incivility and violence in our streets and even in our schools, almost on a daily basis.
But hear this, Psalm 139 assures us that no matter how dire the civil climate, how impossible the odds, no matter how high the mountain, no matter how unjust, unkind, unfair, uncompassionate, or unlikely that our current state of affairs will be, or can be changed…the only constant is that God is still here. Inescapable. And our steadfast hope lies in the sure and steady knowledge that only God will prevail. Everything else will change, eventually. Only God is inescapable.
For as the Psalm says, even the darkness will not be dark to You, O God.
This is the psalm for these trying times.
I would like to close with a poem that I wrote twenty five years ago, long before I had ever really heard of psalm 139. I wrote it for my then 6-year-old niece and godchild, Lauren.
It was included as the first of a collection of poems about nature, well, insects to be exact, called Big Bug Creek that was published in 1998. And today I would like to dedicate it to an undying faith that with the Gracious and Ever-Loving God of our creation, anything and everything is not only possible, but possible within our current means….That is to say, inescplicable, miraculous possibility is already here and now.
Pursuant to the theories of most scientists renowned,
The bumble bee, all quite agree, should not get off the ground.
The principles and test results will verify with might,
That bumble bees, like black eyed peas, were not designed for flight.
It’s simply that their shape and weight are not in right relation
To the wingspan that is needed for this mode of transportation.
Sure, we of sound and solid mind indubitably know
That what the laws of physics say is surely what is so.
But somehow, somewhere, someone failed to thus inform the bees;
And so although we’re in the know, they buzz off as they please.
It’s utterly impossible, preposterous, no-can-do;
Unreasonable, high treasonable, and yet, by gosh, they do.
It could be simply strength of will, or winging on a prayer,
Or possibly the bumble bee is just a fluke midair.
It doesn’t really matter which, the point is when they say,
“It can’t be done, you’re not the one,” just smile and fly away.
And the peopel said: Amen.
© September, 2022 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw