21. July, 2014Sermons No comments

Sermon given by Fr. Jim Gordon on July 20, 2014

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The question of what the founders of this nation believed about God comes up now and then in political debate. Which means Deism comes up now and then because some of the founders were Deists, even if they dressed up their beliefs in Christian rhetoric.

Deism, which had its heyday during the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, posits a belief in the existence of a supreme being who does NOT intervene in the universe.

This is God as watchmaker, God who makes the universe, winds it up, then lets it run its own way. The watchmaker God, meanwhile, simply disappears.

The Deists’ God does not reveal itself to mankind. It does not perform what we call miracles. It does not give a fig for the inhabitants of the Earth. It is completely impersonal.

And I say, if that, indeed, is God, why bother with God at all?

The God of the psalms, and certainly the God of Psalm 139, is 180 degrees different from the God of the Deists. The God of Psalm 139 is so personal, so relentless in his interest in us that the psalmist — by tradition, David — has to ask God:

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?

And the answer, of course, is nowhere.

We can flee, if you will, from our awareness of God’s presence but to actually shake that presence would be like trying to shake your own shadow. It cannot be done.

But in a way, that’s a bad analogy. For one’s shadow is outside oneself, and God is inside, inside each one of us. And He knows us better than we know ourselves.

“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.”

Before we were born, God beheld the limbs of each one of us here present. That’s a comforting thought. Before they were born, God beheld the limbs of the 298 people — including 70 children — who were killed Thursday when a missile struck a Malaysian jetliner over a disputed area of Ukraine. That leads to thinking that’s more complicated, more conflicted, and a question that’s inevitable if unanswerable. Why, God?

The killing of the 298 people on Thursday is believed by the U.S. and others to be the work of Russian separatists in Ukraine, rebels given the rocketry needed to pull off such a crime by the Russians. And it may have been accidental — there’s reason to think whoever pulled the trigger thought they were shooting at a military target. Or the killing of civilians may have been intentional.

What we know is that 298 people are dead because someone felt justified in taking human life, in spilling blood.

Which brings us back to 139.

There is much beauty in this psalm, the description of God’s omniscience, his thoughtful care for us, how he knew us even before we were born, while we were being created in our mothers’ wombs.

The psalmist ponders all this and says, “How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I were to count them all, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would have to be like yours.”

Then come four verses which are so shockingly different in tone and content from the rest of the psalm that they are often excised — as they were in our lectionary this morning. Turn to Page 795 in the Book of Common Prayer and let us read them the way we normally would, responsively by half verse. Verses 18 through 21.

“Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!
You that thirst for blood, depart from me.

They speak despitefully against you;
Your enemies take your name in vain.

Do I not hate those, O Lord, who hate you?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?

I hate them with a perfect hatred;
They have become my own enemies.”

One way of making sense of these lines in context with all the rest is seeing the psalm written by a person seeking vindication, someone who believes he has been wronged and wants God to respond to the injustice. The first 17 verses are prayed to remind God and the psalmist himself of the depth of God’s knowledge, His omniscience, His vision, which cannot be hampered by anything.

“Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.”

To me, it seems as though the writer of the psalm goes into reverie as he recites verse after verse, all the way through “to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.”

Then it seems as though he wakes and remembers his purpose, sputtering out the four verses of imprecation.

I hate your enemies, God, so vindicate me against mine.

And then, perhaps, his rage spent for the moment, realizing again whom he is addressing, remembering how God has perfect vision and judges with perfect justice, not swayed by a piece of rhetoric, he ends mildly with “Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me and lead me in the way that is everlasting.”

In other words, lead me in your way, and away from my way.

So, 139 is a reminder to those who have the temerity to claim that they know, with certainty, who are God’s enemies.

But 139 is more than that.

Another way to translate verses 17 and 18 is this:

“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.”

The “I come to an end” refers to the psalmist’s own life. And yet, he says, “I am still with you.”

Verses 12 through 15 tell us how God is with us even before we are created, even before we are alive. Verse 16 and 17 tell us he is with us even after life ends. Thus, God’s presence extends — in both directions — beyond the boundaries of human life.

Writes author Patrick D. Miller: “Here is faith affirming that in our death we are caught up in the memory of God, remembered by God, held forever in the hand and mind of God … Those who pray with the speaker of this psalm know that God has known them before they even came into being. In like manner, they claim in trust that God knows them after they go out of being, after they come to an end.”

The beauty and the comfort and the wisdom of Psalm 139 is for everyone who is willing to open their heart to God. God’s inescapable nearness, his perfect sight into the depths of our being — his encompassing presence, before, during and after our earthly lives — apply to everyone, including those who were on the plane, and those who shot down the plane, and those of us who in this age of information — a great deal of it horrible and detailed — shake our heads again and again and, despite ourselves, ask, Why, God?

Amen.

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