One of the things I liked to do when I was a kid was to make models. When I saved up my money from babysitting or mowing lawns, if I could be dissuaded from buying a book, I would sometimes buy a model kit to build. Being a complete history buff and science fiction nerd, the completed models I made are somewhat eclectic: a 1940s era Willys drag racer straight out of American Graffiti; a P- 51 Mustang airplane; a bi-plane; the Space Shuttle Enterprise with jet airplane to carry it; a Star Trek USS Enterprise; an X-wing and a TIE fighter from Star Wars. And one thing I learned about making these models: putting them together, piece by piece, made you much more intimately acquainted with these machines than simply looking at them or reading about them, even through a simple plastic model kit.
Yet the knowledge I gained from building a model of those machines is really scant knowledge, indeed. I really only learned about the outward appearance of those models—what was on the inside, what made them work, was still a mystery to me. To really know those machines, one would have to make a complete, working version—even better would be making one from scratch. Our psalm expands upon the idea we’ve heard throughout Epiphany of being known intimately by God who is our Mother, Father, and Creator. Psalm 139 reminds us that God’s knowledge of us is complete. However, that love and intimate knowledge of us presents us with also our greatest challenge.
If you look all through scripture you will see two interesting, competing stories emerge: we want to know God and we are terrified to know God. We want God to love us, and yet we resist the change that that love entails. And so we try to hold God at arm’s length. Yet, the second we think we can hide from God, we are lying to ourselves. God is with us always—not just in good times, and certainly not just in bad times. And God is not only with us, but God KNOWS us. In fact some form of the word “know” is used four times in the first five verses. Again and again we are reminded that God knows us intimately—and the knowledge of that simply boggles the mind of the psalmist.
God knows us and loves us even when we think such bitter thoughts that, in the wonderful turn of phrase of Anne Lamott, would "make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
Because God loves us. Even when we are wallowing in all our pettiness—God loves us enough to call us out of that, too. Some of the omitted verses of our psalm today make that point, so I want to include them here:
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you were there;
If I make the grave my bed, you were there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,
And the lights around the turn to night,”
11 Darkness is not dark to you;
The night is as bright as the day;
Darkness and light to you are both alike.
These omitted verses make a valuable point about human nature. We want to believe that we can bury our flaws and our faults, our sins and trespasses, so deep they can never be found. When we find out how deeply we are known by the One who loves us, our response may be to flee.
It’s often that way. We feel the blessing of God’s presence with us, and know that God is “our portion and our cup.” We radiate with that blessing. And if we are really honest, we realize that that blessing also contains a challenge: the challenge of saying yes to God’s love, and the power of that love to turn our hearts inside out, and our lives upside down.
God knows us, God loves us, God knows what makes us tick—and still God calls to us to share in God’s work. We heard stories this morning of God calling to Eli to bear God’s message of repentance to a people who have wandered from God’s dream for their lives. We see God’s love in Jesus calling Philip and Nathanael to follow him, and to help carry his message of healing and reconciliation to those on the very margins of empire, to those who are oppressed in both body and spirit by the weight of poverty and injustice.
In the gospel today, Nathanael at first fails to understand who Jesus is, just as the boy Samuel misunderstood who was calling him and speaking to him. Just as in our psalm, we have Jesus as the Son of God claiming to know a person intimately, even though he and Nathanael had never met. Once again, we see God through Jesus reaching out to us and seeking us, knowing us even better than we know ourselves. God calls to us, but we can choose to respond or not.
God knows us, and since most of us can be honest with ourselves, that also means that God knows all of our flaws. If you look back at the story of Adam and Eve, you may remember that once they really knew THEMSELVES to be naked, their first impulse was to hide from God, although the assumption is that they had been walking around talking to God in their altogether all the while before their disobedience. Yet it was not their disobedience that made them want to hide—they had already justified that to themselves. It was their nakedness before God that made them dive into the bushes when they heard God coming.
Even in our most flawed and fragile moments, the miracle that hovers over us is that God loves and treasures us as God’s most beloved children, even when part of what makes us who we are includes our anger, our spite, our recklessness, and the very real damage we inflict upon others. There are times when even we in the Church surrender to the economy of scarcity that is the foundation of so much of our world today, and some seek to lock others out, or draw bright lines separating “us” from “them.”
Yet once we acknowledge the woundedness within ourselves and within our relationships with each other and with creation, we can then mindfully and joyfully embody the economy of abundance that is the foundation of God’s knowledge of and love for us. God knows and loves us so much that God gives us an example in Jesus to emulate. “Follow me,” Jesus calls. How far are we willing to go to do that?
God’s knowledge of us, God’s love for us, and God’s call to us extends to everyone—no matter what. God’s love calls us to unity, to common cause in the quest for justice and abundance of life for all. We worship a risen, living Savior, one who is present for us right now, and in this season of Epiphany we are called to both follow his light, and embody it into the world—a world that all too often works in shadow and revels in division—in other words, a world that needs that light more than ever.
Through the promises made at our baptism, when we see the face of Christ at all, we see it not just in our families and loved ones, not just in the persons sitting next to you right now, but in the prisoner, the refugee, and the stranger. As Christians, whether living in the first or the 21st century, we face every day a hundred interior negotiations between what we say we commit to as disciples of Jesus Christ, and what we commit to as people living in—and to a large extent being called by Christ’s values to resist-- a post-modern society.
As Christians, and particularly as the people of God gathered here at the Church of St. Martin, we are together celebrating and giving thanks right now, and that’s a radical act too: to give thanks in this time and place, gathering around this common table together to celebrate Jesus’s call to follow him, to accept his invitation to take up the beautiful work of love. Being known and beloved by God calls us to renewal and reconciliation for the life of the world. We are called to remember that following Jesus means turning our orientation not inward, but outward, opening our hearts to God AND to those who exist on the margins, where Jesus devoted his earthly life.
By the power of God’s love for us and all of creation, God’s Spirit is constantly moving over us, calling us to reconciliation and renewal. In Psalm 51, the psalmist prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And I am convinced that anyone who really thinks about it knows that this is a brave prayer indeed.
The love of God doesn’t just settle over us, but calls us to action—God calls us to partnership, not passivity; God calls us to be fertile ground for God’s ongoing work in the world. Through God’s love, we are called to be healers, reconcilers, restorers, witnesses. In short: disciples. God knows us—and calls us to be partners in the restoration of creation. That’s a miracle, too.
It’s also a challenge. Every day we get met with a new crisis, a new outrage, a new attempt to separate and divide, and we all know that the object of division is to conquer, and let the spreading gloom steal away our hope. Yet it is in that moment that the real work can begin. It is when we fear we have lost our path that the need for a new one can guide us home. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry:
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
God knows us, and calls us to be the very best versions of ourselves we can be, because God has faith in us to share in building up God’s kingdom. Healed, restored, renewed, brought together as one here at God’s altar, we hear God’s call to us as God’s beloveds is a call to engage with the ongoing creation God is working within us and around us. The journey awaits, and we get to do it together: known, loved, and called to partnership by Love Incarnate.
Preached at the Church of St. Martin, Davis, CA, on January 14, 2018.
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
(1) Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), pp. 130-131; (2)Wendell Berry (1934- ), from the essay "Poetry and Marriage" in Standing By Words (1983)
The calling of the boy Samuel; The calling of Philip and Nathanael; Adam and Eve hiding from God in the Garden of Eden; the altar party at the 7:45 service at the Church of St. Martin, Davis.