I would like to take these few minutes to reflect on the psalm appointed for today. As we read it did you notice how the psalmist sings in praise of God who has passionately made every person in beauty and infinite mystery? When I say “passionately” I mean with a love one can hardly fathom. In my mind there is no more beautiful a psalm or one as life affirming. I think that if I had grown up with these words taped to my bathroom mirror I might have had a chance of combating the low self-esteem that plagued my teenage and college-age years. My hope is that you will reread this psalm as if you were its author—this is the personal testimony of your creation. It says so right there in the 14th verse: My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.
This psalm has tremendous relevance for our lives today. It is the balm that soothes one’s self-loathing; it is the balm that soothes the loathing for the “other,” the world. The 139th psalm embraces the sanctity of life, of all life, and not necessarily as a political slogan or wedge issue, but as an expression of the worth God gives to the work of God’s hands. We live in a time when the worth of a human life has been vastly degraded or perceived as nothing more than sacrificial collateral damage. The wages of war numb us to the reality that someone’s beloved father, mother, brother, sister, child was killed because political machinations, hatred and sin always trump the sanctity of life. More than 1000 lives have been lost in Gaza these last few weeks for these very reasons.
If we would only look at our fellow human beings who share this planet of ours, and comprehend that this psalm was written for and by them too, then the world might be in a better place—one grounded in compassion and cooperation, dialogue and diplomacy. One of our deepest desires, both individually and collectively, is to get past the façade, to be understood, and to experience empathy with another person. But I’m afraid fear of the “other” and selfishness always gets in our way—which then begs the question, is there a glitch in our DNA that prevents us from fully understanding another person, and they fully understanding us?
Perhaps it would be helpful to go back to the beginning—the genesis of our creation. The psalmist reminds us of our conception and gestation, and how while we were being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth it was God who molded the human form from dust and breathed the spirit of life into our nostrils (Gen. 2:7). We are God’s own incarnation. God created us; God knows us; God loves his own. “From the 15th verse: “Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.”
The psalmist also looks at her body and notices its intricate shaping and its well-working parts. “This intricate body argues for an intricate creator.”1 The psalmist bears in her body a silent testimony to the loving and intimate care that God gives to every detail on earth. Neither a sparrow falls nor a ligament is tied without God’s knowledge. This is a foretaste of heaven, where we will finally know as we have been known.
And this is where the psalmist finds comfort. Knowing that God knows her better than she knows herself is the greatest of all comforts. The work of our Creator is inescapably personal. And rather than feeling suffocated by God’s presence as Job did, the psalmist is amazed that God desires to lavish so much attention. From the 1st and 2nd verses: “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.”
One can almost sense that the psalmist is intoxicated by the God who is with her and who will not reject her. The amazement of the author is real, for a powerful fear of ours is that if people really knew who we were, they would not like us. We are afraid to admit to ourselves, much less to others, our true identity, for fear of rejection. Once again, the psalmist is overwhelmed. The thought that God knows her so well and yet does not reject her makes her lose herself in deep truths about God: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain to it. How deep I find your thoughts, O God! How great is the sum of them” (3, 16)!
In fact, for the psalmist, intimacy with God is a function of God’s ultimacy. Because God is at the farthest reaches of the universe and in the most secret depths of the human heart, God is our constant companion who cannot be escaped, fooled or ignored. From the 4th verse: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand on me.” Here is our gift, whether we are aware of God or not, we are known completely by God. This is why we pray the Collect for Purity at the beginning of our liturgy: “to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”
Here is the question we must ask though: If God knows us inside and out, then why do we think we can hide our sins, our lies, our abuses from God? Why do we try to hide from ourselves and from others? Who are we kidding? The desire to keep secrets separates us from God. The further the distance between God and you, God and me, allows for all sorts of sordid things to fall in between. The rift becomes wider and deeper. This is also why Paul chided the Corinthians for desecrating their bodies. He named sexual misbehavior as degrading God’s creation—the temple where the Spirit dwells—but we could substitute any vice that abuses one’s body and one’s loved ones in its wake: drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, internet pornography. The psalm makes it clear that the old adage applies: one can run but one cannot hide. That’s the way it is with God, with untruths, abuses, cover-ups. Eventually his light penetrates the darkness. This is why in verse 3 the psalmist says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.”
There is another reason why Psalm 139 is relevant on both individual and communal levels. The psalm cries out for transparency. But who or what isn’t crying out for transparency these days? Transparency against corruption—political and corporate— transparency within our own economy and markets. Transparency within governments and their militaries; transparency against human rights abuses. The list goes on and on. I’ve read and heard it said in many different settings that the recession has forced us to get back to basics—to retrieve what was lost and is truly important. Times are a changin’ folks—there is mandate for decency, for simplicity, for transparency.
I guess what I’d like for you to take from my sermon this morning is that we come from God—every last one of us. Every human being ever born is of God and from God. Some of us have a harder time loving ourselves as we should. Rather than embracing an innate sense of self-worth we tend to pick apart, criticize and desecrate God’s own creation, the Spirit’s own temple. And if that weren’t enough we ignore the fact that our temples are of no more worth than our neighbors or our enemies’ temples. The intimacy, the familiarity we share with God is also shared with the rest of humanity. Let us not abandon the world in hopes of saving our individual souls. For the psalmist reminds us that the sanctity of my life is as valuable as the sanctity of yours. From the 13th verse of our psalm: “I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”
In honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday tomorrow, I reread many of Dr. King’s sermons this past week in hopes of finding a thought or theme of his that would resonate with today’s scripture or one that might point to a greater truth, offer some hope or resolution. It is astounding to realize how his theology, how his writings hold up and are as apt today as they were 40 years ago. This is from a sermon he preached at the National Cathedral in March of 1968 entitled,
“Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.”
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made. We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake though a great revolution.”2 Amen.
1. Thomas Long as quoted in Textweek
2. A Knock at Midnight, edited by Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, pgs. 207-208.