Second Sunday after Epiphany Year B
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Called and Recalled
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Reflection (based on entire Psalm 139)
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this week are "call narratives," stories about individuals who received a call from God. In First Samuel 3, a little boy, Samuel, is called to become a "trustworthy prophet of the Lord," and John's Gospel tells the story of Philip and Nathanael leaving everything behind to follow Jesus when they realize that he is the one "about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote" (1:45). The Psalm reading goes well with these two stories and relates to our own call from God. Perhaps we're not called in the same, dramatic way, by a voice in the deepest night or by Jesus himself standing before us. Still, there's a powerful connection between our call from God and who we are in the depths of our being, not only our gifts and talents but also our most profound inner life and reality. Nathanael's question gets to the heart of the matter: "Where did you get to know me?" (v. 48). Indeed, how did Jesus get to know him, and us?
More than one writer calls Psalm 139 a creation psalm, but not one about the vast mysteries of the heavens and earth or even the marvelous workings of nature around us. This creation is God's own ongoing work in bringing the human person to fullness of life, unwrapping the mystery of us and loving us all the while. While much of the Bible is about "the people," this one is about a person, each one unique and of immeasurable worth. The nightly news brings us constant reminders of the devaluing of human life, with death tolls from war, disease, starvation and other horrors reported with numbers rather than names, let alone the sacred story of each person's life. Might war itself finally end if we heard the names of all its victims, one by one given its moment of honor and remembrance? Allen McSween urges us "to reflect on the sanctity of life, not as a political slogan or a wedge issue, but as an expression of the worth God gives to the work of God's hands" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). So this psalm is about creation, our own identity within it, and how near God is to it all.
Becoming fully who we are
Wrestling with questions of identity and the meaning of life, McSween turns to a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in prison, as he waited to be executed by the Nazis. "He ends the poem," McSween writes, "by asking, 'Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O [God], I am thine'." While we immerse ourselves in identity politics and divide our communities by labels, setting one group against another, we are reassured by this psalm that we belong to God and that we are intimately and steadfastly loved, with a tender and everlasting love by the One who fashioned us, each in the quiet darkness of our mother's womb. McSween hears this same assurance repeated by Paul in First Corinthians 13:12, in his beloved words about the mystery of who we are: "Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known" (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1). We are "not mass-produced but custom-made," James Limburg writes in his commentary on the psalms. He tells the story about "young Rabbi Zusya, who was quite discouraged about his failures and weaknesses. Said an older rabbi to him, 'When you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, "Why weren't you Moses?" No, God will say, "Why weren't you Zusya?" So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'" (Psalms, Westminster Bible Companion).
And this profound sense of our identity and our belonging to God, of God's ongoing creation of us, each one of us with our unique gifts and life story, connects with God's call to us. Deborah Krause describes God’s call as "an invitation to a lifelong relationship with God that in the midst of life's challenges and adversity is charged with the assurance of God's presence and is connected to a deep awareness of God's sovereign purposes of justice and peace for all creation" (New Proclamation Year B 2006). Not really a specific "job" or occupation, as I was raised to think of a vocation (in those days, specifically to "religious life" as a priest or nun: you either "had a vocation," or you did not), but a lifelong understanding of ourselves as precious children of God with a call to live out God's beautiful purposes for our lives, but also for all of creation.
The "religious temptation" of certitude
Isn't this good news? And don't we need to hear it, here, at the beginning of a new year in times that can only be described as troubling? Don't we need to know that God is with us, no matter what and no matter where? Walter Brueggemann, in his thought-provoking but elegant book, The Covenanted Self, finds in this text a "faith that is solid, tight, and deeply assured....serious, insistent, and buoyant." No matter what, God is with us, even, as the psalmist says, in deepest darkness, not just any darkness, Brueggemann says, but "that pre-electricity context darkness ominous, dangerous, filled with threats and spirits, like children know, like our failed city streets." The most frightening places we can imagine still are filled with the presence of God, abiding with us. The psalmist, Brueggemann says, "is Job before the trouble." However, Brueggemann still finds a challenge within the psalm, the possibility of a "religious temptation" prompted by certitude when we claim to know God and God's thoughts and intentions (getting it backwards, it seems). When we read the entire psalm, we most often leave out the verses that make us so, well, uncomfortable: the ones asking God to "kill the wicked," the ones about hating them "with perfect hatred" (vv. 19-22). We fall prey to a certitude that we call faith, especially if it works out well for us: "Anybody who equates his or her own program with the reality of God can be brutally shrill toward opponents and wondrously innocent about self." His insights go right to the heart of so many controversies in the church, in society, and between nations, as too many of us, even when trying to be faithful, use our own understanding of God as our own justification for judging others (The Covenanted Self). Jesus did have something to say about that, didn't he?
Brueggemann recognizes the beauty of the psalm, too, not as a scientific text but as "a dazzling affirmation about the mystery of life that is hidden in God's powerful will" as it speaks of the "inscrutability of the human person" (The Covenanted Self). Psalm 139 is about our call from God, yes, but it's also the Stillspeaking God's reassurance that, no matter what anyone says and no matter what befalls us, in every moment of our lives, we are precious in God's sight, and magnificent examples of God's powers in creation.
A most beautiful psalm
Psalm 139 is my favorite psalm (although Psalm 131 is a close second). I'm often reminded of it by a parent's love, or a grandparent's love, when someone has watched a child grow and has loved that child every moment of his or her life. In fact, the children's story, "The Runaway Bunny," by Margaret Wise Brown, sounds a lot like Psalm 139 to me. No matter what the little rabbit would do, no matter where it would go, its mother would still love it (a wonderful, feminine image of God for children to hear). So I thought I'd share with you this week a reflection adapted from a sermon I once preached on Psalm 139 (by the way, Psalm 139 is a wonderful text to preach at a funeral):
I've been reading the most fascinating book on the mind. Or the brain. Or both. The things they're discovering about the brain contradict much of what science held as dogma for a long time (yes, religious folks aren't the only ones who have dogmas). It's amazing, truly amazing: the way we work, the way God made us. We are such a mystery, and yet, and yet...God knows us in our innermost being: "O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts from far away....I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."
My favorite psalm
I love Psalm 139 because it reminds me of my firstborn son, John. Since before John was born, we've called him "Beau," which is French for handsome, which is what he is. When I watch this fine young man, who teaches fourth grade in an urban school and is such an excellent daddy to little Allyson, Madelyn, and Elliott, I close my eyes and still see the little guy in his train engineer's cap and overalls, playing "workerman," methodically stacking and re-stacking his boxes of diapers, or turning his little slide over on its side, jumping up on top and flying it as his helicopter. I see an earnest little boy on his first day of school in blue slacks, white shirt and a tiny little tie. I see a twelve-year-old with incredibly dirty arms and legs, ripping off his shin guards and talking a mile a minute about the soccer game he just finished. And I see a teenager, no longer a boy and not quite yet a man, with legs too long for the couch and an appetite to match. Beau just turned forty years old, but to me he is still all of these ages, because I have known him since before he was born, when I felt his movements and the beat of his heart next to mine.
When I was growing up, I thought we all got some kind of training for parenthood; after all, it looked like a pretty hard job. I asked my neighbor, a young mother of three, where she learned how to be a mother. She patted her oldest child on the head and said, "This is the one I learned on." Beau is the one I learned on. But he's taught me some things, too. When he was in second grade, preparing for First Communion and earnestly attentive to his religion lessons, he was sitting next to me in church one morning when I was feeling perturbed about exclusive language and probably one hierarchical issue or another. I wasn't connecting too well with God, but then I heard this soft little voice in the pew, next to me, singing these words along with the rest of the congregation: "Yahweh, I know you are near, standing always at my side...." This hymn by Daniel Schutte paraphrases Psalm 139, and I let the words, not my scattered thoughts, carry me back to where I needed to be, and, as the Bible says, a little child led me there.
The psalms, unlike any other book in the Bible
Unlike the rest of the Bible, the psalms are addressed directly to God. The other books are history, stories, law, proverbial sayings, letters and other forms of writing. But the psalms are Israel's prayer book, and even today, thousands of years later, they still express our deepest feelings, fear and joy and anger and confusion, better than anything we can come up with. Isn't it amazing to think about the psalmist...I picture him or her sitting on a rock on a hillside, although he or she was probably in a more formal, liturgical setting, writing these words that call to mind the pictures, provided by modern technological wonders, of an unborn child, sucking her thumb and swimming about in her mother's womb: "It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb." And what kind of prayer arises naturally in our throats when we see such a wonder? A prayer of praise, not of ourselves, as if we are responsible for our own beauty or even for the beauty of our children. From our hearts comes a prayer of praise and worship and adoration of the God who has formed not only the vast expanses of heaven and earth and all the unfathomable mysteries they contain, but also the tiny, delicate fingers and toes of a newborn baby.
Now, what I know to be true is that it's easy for us, as parents, grandparents and loving friends, to see the beauty and wonder of God's handiwork when we look at a newborn baby or a child, or when we raise our eyes to the heavens and gaze at the stars, or when we walk in a garden and see the exquisite loveliness of flowers and stones side by side. What seems to be more difficult is for us to look at ourselves, all grown up and somewhat the worse for wear, and pray that same prayer with quite the same enthusiasm. As we live out our lives, knowing failures and shortcomings as well as accomplishments and success, we seem to know especially well our faults and limitations. Of course we try to hide them. But they are ever present in our own minds. Peter Gomes, who was the Preacher to Harvard University, wrote a book about the Bible called The Good Book. In one chapter, entitled "The Bible and the Good Life," he describes the "imposter syndrome" that afflicts us all. We spend our days, he says, in image building, trying to hide our weaknesses from one another, whether in the boardroom, on the athletic field or on the battlefield. We dress a certain way, use body language and speech in a certain way, and even pile up credentials and experience to prove that we are "good enough."
A word of good news
Here's what Peter Gomes says about that: "Well, there is good news, and that is why they call it the gospel. The news is not that we are worse than we think, it is that we are better than we think, and better than we deserve to be. Why? Because at the very bottom of the whole enterprise is the indisputable fact that we are created, made, formed, invented, patented in the image of goodness itself....Self-worth, self-esteem, self-value...[are]...the stuff of goodness and godliness itself, and it is that image that provides security and serenity in the world. People may take everything away from you...but they cannot take away from you the fact that you are a child of God and bear the impression of God in your very soul. You cannot be destroyed, and that cannot be denied." What the psalm tells us then is that God is with us at the core of our very being, deeper than anything the scientists, bless their hearts, can ever measure or understand. The psalm reassures us that no matter what, God knows us, each and every one of us. We are precious in God's sight.
I recall a meeting of the Education committee at a church I served years ago, where I listened to the members talk about the children and youth in the church school. At the beginning of a new school year, they were discussing who would be in which grade levels, and I heard them, in a sense, mark the growth of each young person as he or she moved up from one level to the next in their religious education. As they named each child or teenager, you could tell that the teachers knew them and cared about them, and saw them progressing in their life of faith. We even had a rather serious and challenging discussion about whether this child or that one would mind bringing in a stuffed animal for a certain project, but we decided that even the high-schoolers wouldn't mind doing so, since our college students had managed to sneak their teddy bears into their suitcases when they went off to school. (Yes, even Beau still has his teddy bear.) The words of the psalm speak of a tender, attentive God who loves us even more and even better than we love one another.
God, always with us
I also heard the psalm in the background as I visited church members who were ill: I could hear the words, "even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" as I listened to them express their thanks for all of the prayers that helped them get through their difficult time. I saw healing and growing strength, tender care provided by loved ones, and the effect of a supportive community of faith on those who needed them. I saw people being held fast by the right hand of God.
Recognizing in our own goodness and beauty the handiwork of God draws us to praise God and to accept God's sovereignty in our lives. The Broadway musical, "Titanic," provides an illustration of human beings admiring themselves too much and believing that they could in fact control their world, if not the universe. Early in the play, as the ship departs from England, when everything is going well and everyone is terribly impressed by human cleverness and technology, the ship's officer gets to take over the command of the huge ocean liner briefly from the captain. The song he sings (with lyrics by Maury Yeston) sounds like a hymn, but he is singing to himself, as he realizes that he's controlling this extraordinarily massive moving object. He thinks about the thousands of people whose lives he has responsibility for. It makes him feel quite proud and impressed with himself. But at the end of the play, that same officer watches from a lifeboat as the mighty ship sinks with hundreds of people aboard, and he sings the same song, only this time it really is a hymn, a hymn to the God who holds all of these, living and dead, close to God's heart. Who, then, is sovereign in our lives, and how often do acknowledge that we are not the ones in charge?
Questions for reflection: How might it alter your self-image to think of yourself as God's "work-in-progress"? How does the message of belonging to God conflict with the dominant messages of our culture? How do you respond to Brueggemann's interpretation of the troubling and often ommitted verses 19-22? Do you prefer to skip over them? What do you think prevents a person from trying to "be Zusya" rather than to "be Moses"? How do you reconcile Peter Gomes' words with the idea of being born in sin?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews Huey serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
For further reflection:
Hafiz, 14th century poet
"I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing Light of your own Being."
"No one could ever paint a too wonderful picture of my heart or God."
Nanette Sawyer, 21st century (in The Hyphenateds)
"Imagination opens up possibility, but sometimes we do not dare to imagine something as beautiful as God."
Albert Einstein, 20th century
"He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."
Lao Tzu, 5th century B.C.E.
"From wonder into wonder existence opens."
Thomas Carlyle, 19th century
"Wonder is the basis of worship."
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."
Then the Lord said to Samuel, "See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever." Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. But Eli called Samuel and said, "Samuel, my son." He said, "Here I am." Eli said, "What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you." So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, "It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him."
As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
O God, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O God, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days
that were formed for me, before they existed.
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.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany
The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ's return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. After the First Sunday of Epiphany, green is used through the season of Epiphany, until Lent begins.