It is good to be back from vacation. We had a wonderful time being with my parents and my brother and his family at Bethany Beach, Delaware. The weather was hot and sunny, the water refreshing, the house magnificent – right on the beach – with a long front porch atop the dunes. Sun and moon rises were breathtaking. One night the full moon’s glow created a golden reflection on the ocean. It looked like a path that you could walk upon to the actual limits of the sea – “the farthest limits of the sea.” Looking at such a limitless path made it very easy to feel expansive, and connected.
That’s why I was so pleased to see that, coincidentally, Psalm 139 was the text for today. It has always been one of my favorites. It is, for the most part, an amazingly expansive psalm with mention of sea and sand. I like to think that maybe the psalmist, the writer, was sitting on a beach too, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, thinking of the farthest ends of the sea, maybe down by the area we call Gaza today – a very sandy area – looking out at the endless horizon, and having this sense of connection – a sense that the writer was somehow connected to the greatness of the world.
“O Lord,” we read, “you have searched me and known me.” Now I have to admit, when I was a teenager, I remember reading those lines and kind of getting the creeps. I mean, God knows and sees everything? I didn’t know if I liked that! And even in my old age, thinking that God knows the words will come forth from my mouth on the softball field – it makes me blush in embarrassment.
But then when I think more wisely, and consider that every moment that we live is lived within the presence of a God who knows, that every moment is somehow linked, and that instead of having to hide, God already knows – it is liberating, really. I no longer have to put on a face. Because God knows. God knows me. I am not alone. God knows you – really, really intimately. To be known, to be loved for who you are and even for who you are not. That’s powerful. For who you can become. And for who you can never, ever, get to be. You are of inestimable importance to God. You matter.
That’s the essence of Psalm 139, it seems to me. That you matter. And if you’ve read that wonderful novel that’s the hot sell this summer – The Help, right? I read it at the beach. And at the base of that book, the crux of the narrative, are the voices of these domestic helpers in Jackson, Mississippi. Their voices empower them. Their stories matter. And when connected, they change a whole world of narrow thinking. And it made me think of those Memphis trash collectors holding their signs, way back in 1969 I believe, their signs that read “I Am A Man!” (Talk about a tagline…) I am a Man! Immediately, the power and the worth are connected.
I mean, this is what Psalm 139 is talking about. Because I really believe this to be true. When you feel you have worth, when you feel you are connected, when you feel you have some status that God knows, and God gives a damn (and I use that in the Biblical context, of course), when you feel that you matter and are connected, you can go through a heck of a lot – I mean, you can suffer many things, even the worst injustices. You tend to persevere when you see that your story is part of a larger narrative, a larger context. But on the other hand, when you feel your life isn’t worth much, when you feel disconnected and alone….man, I’m telling you, there’s a tendency to go crazy! You can do wild, crazy things. You feel cut off. And in my reading of the Scripture, that is the definition of hell, a living hell–feeling cut off and alone. That you don’t matter. That you’re just a blot on existence.
And it is that reality of a living hell that I think many of us carry – maybe in little pieces – and sometimes it’s larger, we feel it more powerfully – but it’s the reality of that living hell in our larger world that just drives me – I have to tell you why I don’t preach much on hell and damnation and things like that. Because it seems to me that’s already so self-evident. We already feel so often driven by guilt and despair, feeling cut off. I mean, our whole society seems to be so fractured and shattered that we have to start telling people about a God who knows and a God who cares and a God who empowers and that your voice matters. I find that very, very biblical.
Really, you know, when you think about Hell in the Scriptures – there are multiple, multiple verses – and in my study, I don’t think there’s one sort of “OK, we’ve got the answer about what Hell’s going to be like.” And i think at least in Psalm 139 we are given a new kind of vision of what Hell might be like and it’s not some place you go to after you die, where there is no contact with God, no connection with God. This Psalm teaches something different: even Hell, Sheol, is within the boundaries of God’s creation. And that’s remarkable! Think about that! No matter where you are, no matter where you locate yourself, no matter where other people locate you sometimes, you simply can’t get outside of God’s economy. That is what is taught in Psalm 139. I know there are other verses. But I’m just saying, when you read your Scriptures and you’re trying to figure out what God’s call for you is – remember the breadth of versus, don’t try to narrow it down to just one little answer. Psalm 139 teaches that you can’t get outside of God’s presence, you can’t do it. You can run . . . but you can’t hide! You can attempt to flee the Almighty. But it simply can’t be done. There is no place to go. That’s what the psalmist means: If you run to the farthest limits of the sea, guess what? God’s there. Hi John! If I make my bed in Sheol – if you go to Hell! – that’s what it says. Guess what? Hi John! It’s like this big circle. We get to run. We get all this freedom of movement – there’s no question about that. I’m a good reformed Presbyterian. Free will, absolutely! And yet, God’s intention is larger than us. The Psalm teaches that we can’t get outside of that! Just remember this psalm when other verses are raised.
And what this psalm does, which I think is so amazing to me, is it kind of valorizes every space and every place. Not every space is pleasant – some of it’s just downright ugly, horrible, evil even – and yet this Psalm reminds us it’s still not outside God. There is something potentially sacred – where we’re walking on holy ground. Even the despicable places. Even the places of shame. Even the places of guilt. Even the places of desperation!
Now I I know that may sound absurd. But can’t you just imagine this psalm writer sitting on the beach, looking out at the farthest horizons of the sea, and catching a glimpse, just a little glimpse, of this larger possibility. It’s just a mystical moment. And it changes everything! I mean, the Psalm doesn’t diminish what you are feeling right now – it actually valorizes being in Sheol or the farthest limits of the sea – but at least it reminds us that your place, your feeling has to be placed in the context of something much larger, a much larger vision. You know, when the psalmist says, “I come to the end,” my mind is blowing! “I come to the end. You are still with me.” Man!
This Psalm has given Deanne and me and countless other mothers and fathers much comfort after a miscarriage, after a still birth, after an abortion, after a death of a child. It gives parents hope when they’re trying to raise that “difficult” child. And I really think it give some power to one who perceives him/herself as not right, or deformed, or ugly, or fat, no good – it gives you something else to consider.
There’s often that feeling of heartache about the daughter or son or even your own self – let’s be real – that has not developed, that has somehow “failed.” But to read, to read, that God formed your inward parts…i mean, I’m getting tingly up here even on this hot and sticky day, I’m getting overwhelmed! That God forms the inward part. And God’s spirit has been involved with you since before you were in the womb!
It puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?
To God, no thing, and no person, is wasted. All life matters – everything is bound together. I mean, this is the expansive vision of the psalmist.
This psalmist had an insight that is mind-blowing. It reminds me of Annie Dilliard’s Holy the Firm. It perceives the holiness, the connectedness of everything, like that Emily Dickinson poem I have in the Bulletin today. This writer has spread her narrow, narrow hands “to gather Paradise!”
But then, let’s get real, this psalm kind of comes crashing back down to earth. Did you hear that? I almost did away with the last five verses, thinking, “We don’t need to deal with them.”
“Oh that you would kill the wicked!” Darn it.
Psalms do that sometimes. You know, Psalm 137, just two psalms before this one, starts off with “By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…” It’s this gorgeous lament, but you know what the last verses are? “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Just grotesque.
The mixing of the mystic and the monstrous – how much this psalm describes the whole person and all of life. But I’ll tell you – just because you feel something doesn’t mean you’ve got to live it out. What our passions may lead us to want to express and want to do at any given moment is not necessarily what God wants you to do in the next moment. Jesus taught us that lusting in your heart is just as sinful as the real thing. I get it. I know what he was telling us.
But there also is a real difference between thinking and doing. There is a big difference between expressing an opinion and making policy. Being angry and hurt and scared and frustrated is honest. Wanting to nail your enemy, I get it because I feel it! But it’s not the basis for making the most rational decisions. And presuming that you know who the enemy is and who the wicked ones are – I’m going to get contemporary now, so just hold on! – like “anchor babies,” or “illegal immigrants,” or “welfare queens” – well, that’s nice political sport, but it doesn’t reflect the God of this Psalm, or the God of the Scriptures.
So even this sublime Psalm gets down and dirty and agitates me to think deeply about practical things, political things, like how in heaven’s name do we somehow get our mind around, and share our common faith – a faith grounded in the belief that nothing is outside of God’s creative power for good – that’s what Psalm 139 teaches. So how does this shape our thinking, say, about the building of the Islamic center in Lower Manhattan, near ground zero. Let’s move this discussion from the mystical to the very real. Because if our faith doesn’t cut it in the day to day…then what good is it?
Now I know that this issue touches chords within you. It touches chords within me. And we may not necessarily agree. Just this morning, I read Charles Krauthammer’s opinion in The Plain Dealer, and it gave me pause about what I’m going to share with you. But remember, here in the Christian church, you know, unanimity isn’t the key. It’s unity in Christ. So let’s remember that. Because while I was at the beach, and it really was there because if you know me, you know I write my sermons Tuesday and Wednesday. So this is not just, you know, trying to flow with the political thing. I was thinking this before, I was thinking this on the beach. Looking out at the endless horizon of possibility, there was a part of me that kept thinking “I hope that Islamic center is built. May it thrive. And may it bring good things to the neighborhood, and to the city and to this dear country. May it be a beacon – to Muslims, Christians, Jews and all people of good will – that terror doesn’t have the final word. Right? God’s plan is larger.
And it made me think, it’s so easy, but Muslims are not the enemy – particularly American ones. As Christians I think we have to resist lumping the terrorists with Islam. I know that there are difficult passages in the Koran that you can find that are very violent. But what about the last five verses we just read? And do you know that there are self-professed Christians who gather now in the bunkers of mistrust believing that verses like the last five verses of Psalm 139 and other verses justify their world view. So you have to be careful.
I was communicating with Amanda Osenga this past week, who used to work as the Youth Director at this church. She has completed seminary and has been called to ministry in a church in Florida. And she emailed me two weeks ago and said, “John, there is a church in Gainesville, that on 9/11 is going to have a Koran burning.”
Now, I get the concern, I really do. And I want to be so compassionate – as much as I can be – to some of the victims of 9/11 who think that this Islamic center is getting built too close. I get that. But not everybody feels that way. Some have expressed, some very close friends and family in my own connective group, “If only the center would be built someplace else, like Upper Manhattan, or in Newark, New Jersey – just not so close.” But then I think, “Where is appropriate? The farthest limits of the sea?” This center, as I read about it, is 2.5 blocks away from ground zero and won’t be seen. If I have read correctly, at this proposed center there will be a memorial to the victims of 9/11. The director, Feisal Adbul Rauf , denounced terrorism in general, 9/11 in particular, and was even tapped by our FBI to conduct “sensitivity training” for the agents. I mean, he’s hardly a rabble-rouser.
And then I remembered the mosques who joined the interfaith services after the attacks. And the Islamic leaders who condemned the evil of 9/11. And the Muslims who worked in the rubble of the Twin Towers. And the followers of Mohamed who were profiled unfairly. Perhaps I need to consider the “wicked way in me” before I cast the stone of judgment on a whole religion during this season of Ramadan.
You know, Psalm 139 agitates me. Christianity is not about “darkness” or covering up. We’re to be people of the Light. And it may not be the politically correct thing to do. Being Christian is not being politically correct – it is seeking in humility to discern what Jesus would have us do and then do it, even if Christ leads us in a direction that we don’t hear on MSNBC or FOX, or preached by Medved or Gingrich.
All I can confess to – and all I’m asking us to do and to think about – is that God searches and knows and God’s knowledge is WAY too high for us. However, we who call ourselves beloved children of God can not allow ourselves to dwell in the darkness of blanket judgment, or narrow ignorance, or paralyzing fear. True love casts out fear. Remember that. You and I must proclaim a gospel of light, of hope, of peace, of hospitality – of sharing all the abundance – keeping our faith alive upon the endless horizons of God’s grace and mercy.
You know, you send me away on vacation and that’s what I think about! For better or for worse. You might want to send me off for six months now – I’d take it! In fact, I’ve decided that one of my primary vocations is vacation. I’m just good at it!
But that’s what I was thinking about as I sat on the beach and looked out at the endless horizon, feeling small and yet very powerful and good in the majesty of God who set the farthest limits of the sea and the depths of the deepest holes, in this “thin space” where heaven and earth become one.
And so I close: “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!”
Thanks be to God for that!