Sunday, September 4, 2022


The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Katy TX 77450

September 4, 2022

Psalm 139

Priests rarely preach on the psalms. They seem to have a place in the service but we tend to gloss over them. They are what goes between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Epistle. Yet every service in the prayer book contains at least one if not multiple psalms. In the monastic world the psalms are an integral part of their prayer with most orders reading the entire Psalter every month. Elements of the psalms find their way into many parts of our service from opening sentences in Morning and Evening Prayer. Yet we never really seem to take them seriously. Maybe this is because some of them seem ugly even violent in fact they portray just about every human emotion at one time or another.

I started on this line of thought because the very first day on my Ignatian silent retreat my spiritual director for the week gave me several psalms to pray over. Now I’ve never had a director start a retreat this way, but it was quite interesting and I think he did it in part to get a snapshot of my image of God. This would give him some insight on where to go with passages for the week. Each day we met after breakfast for an hour and at the end of the time he would give me three scriptures each day to pray over in 3 prayer periods that followed the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. That along with mass each day at 11:15 made up the rhythm of the week.

So what is special about the psalms? In a lecture by Walter Brueggemann I heard one summer Walter stated that the psalms are one of the most human books of the bible. In some respects they almost feel like children talking to a parent. Sometimes they seem to be trying to curry favor. Sometimes it seems that there are two children fighting and appealing to God as the parent to take the side of one or the other. The Psalms tell us a great deal more about ourselves and what we think about God than they actually tell us about God. That’s what I think my director was trying to get at so he could plan the spiritual exercises for the week.

Psalm 139 at least the portion we read today is one of my favorite psalms and fortunately for us the lectionary stops before the psalmist begins to plead the case to God about how his enemies are unfair and deserve punishment. This psalm is considered a lament. The portion we read is the psalmist talking to God in a you know me God, I’m a good person line of argument and then he goes on to ask God to smite his enemies. However, in this opening portion the understanding of the psalmist of who God is and how God is may be one of the best descriptions of God in the entire Hebrew Scriptures.

The portion that we read of Psalm 139 today is all about how God relates to us, how God knows us. I did add some verses because I didn’t want to leave the part out the lectionary omitted for it is too important. BTW I am allowed to extend a reading but am not allowed to shorten the reading.

The word know appears six times in this psalm along with the words, search, discern, acquaint, and behold each a type of knowing. However, while this knowing is intimate it is also a balanced view of God in the transcendent and the immanent. There is a balance here of an understanding of God as king and ruler with an image of God who knows us in an intimate and intense way.

When we speak of a transcendent God this is the God who is out there. This psalm portrays God in terms of divine omniscience, omnipresence in space, omnipresence in time. God is everywhere and God is timeless. There are no restrictions to God in this view and the times we get into the most trouble is when we try to draw lines around God and restrict God to what we can understand. God is too big for our constraints. The lines about this focus on God as creator of all reflect this along with his creation of each one of us in the cosmic sense of creation.

When we speak of immanence, we are speaking of God’s intimate knowledge of us. The lines about you knew in my mother’s womb, you know my rising up and my lying down, you press behind and in front of me, you lay your hand on me all reflect this intense intimate knowledge.

Now in applying this understanding to Christ, Richard Rohr wrote the following:

“In the human mind of Christ, every part of creation knows itself as (1) divinely conceived, (2) beloved of God, (3) crucified, and (4) finally reborn. He carries us across with him, assures us it is okay, and thus models the full journey and final direction of consciousness. That is my major thesis about how Jesus “saves us.”

God knows us no matter where we are, no matter where we run.

That bothers some people as if some dirty little secret they think they have could cause God to love them less.

The Gospel is much more subtle than that. Jesus’ life and his risen body say instead that the discovery of our own divine DNA is the only, full, and final meaning of being human[1]

The Collect for Purity that I read at the beginning of the service reflects some of this understanding: “Almighty God to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” This is simply an acknowledgement of this intimate knowledge of us. Now as Richard stated in his quote this bothers some people. I know the first time I heard this I went wow I’m not sure I want God to know me that well and this was for the exact reason that Richard gives. We fear this if we fear that something about us can cause God not to love us or to love us less. Nothing could be further from the truth and ultimately that’s the point of the first half of the psalm.

We then ask in that prayer for God to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit.” The word inspiration means literally to breath into us the Spirit, to bring us to a point where we can love God. This is not about making us worthy to be loved by God, it is about bringing us to a point where we can accept the fact that God loves us and we are just returning that love.

This psalm is about realizing that we can celebrate an image of God that knows us, loves us and is always with us. No matter how far we stray or how far away from us we feel God is this psalm assures us that God is there. Ignatius taught that at the moment when God feels the farthest away from us, for whatever reason, that is in fact when God is closest to us, desiring that we just acknowledge this.  In the story of Jacob’s ladder Jacob has the dream where he sees angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven. When he awakes he cries, “You were here all along, and I never knew it!” (Genesis 28:16)

Now each day at mass there was always a brief homily or more accurately a reflection. Fr. Paul who is the director of the center spoke on the anniversary of Harvey about go bags. You know that bag they suggest you have ready to go if you have to evacuate. Well, the gospel passage was the calling of the first four disciples and he talked about what we need in our go bag if Jesus calls us. I will probably work all 4 things into future sermons, but the first point was really vital and does relate to this psalm.

The first thing in his go bag is the willingness to let God love you and live with you forever. Many people struggle with this. We must be willing to let God love us and abide with us forever. Without this nothing else really matters. You see God knows us, knows everything even if we think we have something to hide. The important point of all this is that no matter what, we are God’s beloved. No matter what we are always in God’s presence even if we don’t realize and know it, God does. So before we can do anything as disciples we have to be willing to let God love us, because God does. We just need to accept that love and invite God to live with us forever.