Sunday, July 19, 2020
God is with us no matter where we go.
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77493
This week I was looking back at a folder I keep of sermon ideas and thoughts. Mostly research that was good but didn’t make it into a sermon. Six years ago I began my sermon with the following sentence in regards to this week’s psalm 139. I had written the following, “Given the week of horrible news in this troubled world of ours I think we all need to hear this message of God’s love and care for us loud and clear. There is no better piece of scripture to help us understand God’s constant presence and love than psalm 139.” Nothing much has changed it seems. In fact, I do not remember what the “horrible” week 6 years ago was. What I do know is this psalm is my favorite psalm and we definitely need this image of God right now.
I believe the scholars that put together the lectionary knew exactly what they were doing when they paired psalm 139 with the story of Jacob’s ladder. For this issue of the need for an awareness of God’s presence is as old as humanity.
A quick recap of the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Last week we heard about him taking Esau’s birthright. In the passages between last week and today Jacob has now tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing as well. Fearful of his older brother’s anger Jacob is on his way to his Uncle Laban in a distant land. While on the journey he has this dream when he stops at the place that will be called Bethel, which became the second most holy spot in Israel.
Now Jacob at this point is anything but a religious person. To be clear religion as we think of it today did not even exist. No priests, no temples no liturgy or ritual. No bible or Torah. We will hear later in the story about Jacob taking the household gods of Laban when he leaves with his wives Rachel and Leah, who are Laban’s daughters. But up until this point we really have no evidence that Jacob even gave God a passing thought.
So here he is, running away from his brother Esau crossing wilderness and desert and he experiences a theophany, an inbreaking of God into his world in a dream. And in many respects, this is the first time God gets his attention although Jacob the trickster is still a very shrewd character. Yet God uses him and continues to use him for God’s purpose. No matter what Jacob has done or where he goes, God is always with him and that is the message of psalm 139.
I have become acquainted with a wonderful translation of the Psalms by Nan Merrill entitled Psalms for Praying. You can find a link on the internet and the website is in the footnote of this sermon. If you want a fresh and interesting look at the psalms, buy her book where she has rewritten all 150 psalms. So listen to what she does with Psalm 139.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
O my Beloved, You have searched me
and known me!
You know when I sit down and
when I rise up’
You discern my innermost thoughts.
You find me on the journey and
guide my steps;
You know my strengths and
Even before words rise up in prayer,
Lo, You have already heard
my heart call.
You encompass me with love where’er
and your strength is my shield.
Such sensitivity is too wonderful
it is high; boundless gratitude
is my soul’s response.
O that You would vanquish my fears,
O that ignorance and suffering
would depart from me –
My ego separates me from true
to surrendering myself into
Yet are these not the very thorns that
focus my thoughts upon You?
Will I always need reminders to
turn my face to You?
I yearn to come to You in love,
to learn of your mercy and wisdom!
Search me, O my Beloved, and know
Try me and discern my thoughts!
Help me to face the darkness within me;
enlighten me, that I might radiate
your Love and Light!1
When I first heard this translation the word that jumped off the page at me was “Beloved.” In Nan’s translation God is always referred to as Beloved. Let that sink in for just a moment. People talk about being loved by God but how many of you have ever considered using the term Beloved for God. How does that change your image of God?
Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian wrote a book that I originally read in seminary that really informs how that change in terms makes a difference. He spoke of the need for us to establish an I/Thou relationship with God rather than and I/it relationship. God is not an object and we cannot enter into a deeper relationship with God until that relationship changes from subject/object to I/thou. The word Beloved helps me at least begin to understand what Buber was writing about.
With that image of the Beloved being the one with whom we have this relationship the conversation changes. Some people when they first encounter this psalm become nervous with the idea that God know us in that deepest and most intimate understanding of the Jewish concept of knowing. In Hebrew the word used to know is far beyond head knowledge and is used for the most intimate knowing and sharing that we as humans can experience. However, with God as our Beloved there is nothing to fear in this relationship
Verse 4 brings to my mind the potter image from Jeremiah. To make my point let me interpret this verse twice, but I will change one word and I believe you will hear and hopefully feel the difference. Behind and in front God shapes me. Surrendering into God’s hands I allow myself to be formed. I allow God to shape me into the vessel God desires. Now listen to that same thought using the word Beloved. Behind and in front my Beloved shapes me. Surrendering into the Beloved’s hands I allow myself to be formed. I allow the Beloved to shape me into the vessel the Beloved desires.
Have you ever thought of God in these terms? I had not until I heard this psalm translated this way. This viewing God as the Beloved during my first silent retreat was crucial to what I needed to embrace during that retreat. This was for me the final healing of an image of God from long ago that was an image that one feared as in being afraid.
Viewing God as the Beloved changes everything. Now we have the image of the Beloved being everywhere we are, there is nowhere the Beloved is not. There is no implication of fleeing, but an assurance that no matter where we go, no matter what happens the Beloved is always there.
The point is not that God pursues or follows us, but wherever we go the Beloved is already there. This is a radical departure from the tribal God of much of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not a God that goes out with the army or walks around the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve. This is a cosmic God who is in all places and all times in creation. This changes everything in the relationship
The second and final piece of this use of the term beloved is that if God is our beloved than we are the beloved of God. Again I ask, have you ever thought of yourself and God in the terms of beloved and beloved. (In saying this out loud you do need to change the pronunciation).
I have often mentioned my icon of the beloved disciple and I how I consider us all to be beloved disciples. This however changes the emphasis of the two words beloved and disciple. Now in this relationship beloved is no longer the modifier but the subject. We are the beloved who are called to be disciples. We are not disciples who want to be beloved because of what we do. This is such a critical difference in our relationship with God that I cannot overemphasize this.
Jacob was beloved even when he did not have a clue who God was. We are all God’s beloved we just need to acknowledge and embrace that way of being. So I encourage you to download this sermon and sit with that translation of psalm 139 and see what your beloved says to you.
Now I asked the choir to sing the hymn We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. For me this hymn is all about drawing closer a loving, liberating, life-giving God.