Sunday, January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Called and Recalled
Insistent God, by night and day you summon your slumbering people. So stir us with your voice and enlighten our lives with your grace that we give ourselves fully to Christ's call to mission and ministry. Amen.
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.
All readings for this Sunday:
1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
1. How might it alter your self-image to think of yourself as God's "work-in-progress"?
2. How does the message of belonging to God conflict with the dominant messages of our culture?
3. How do you respond to Brueggemann's interpretation of the troubling and often ommitted verses 19-22? Do you prefer to skip over them?
4. What do you think prevents a person from trying to "be Zusya" rather than to "be Moses"?
5. How do you reconcile Peter Gomes' words with the idea of being born in sin?
Reflection (based on entire Psalm 139)
by Kate Matthews
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?
Creation as an ongoing work
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." 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, at times setting one group against another, we are reassured by this psalm that we all 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." We are "not mass-produced but custom-made," James Limburg writes in his commentary on the psalm. 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 donÆt you stop trying to be Moses, and start being the Zusya God created you to be?'"
Call as invitation
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 GodÆs 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."
So we're called not really to 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 to accept a lifelong understanding of ourselves as precious children of God with a call to live out God's beautiful purposes for our lives, and 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 yet another new year in times that continue to be described as troubling? (Who among us ever expected to be this deeply worried about the possibility of imminent nuclear holocaust?) In any case, don't we need to know that God is with us, no matter what and no matter where? Walter Brueggemann 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).
Using our own understanding of God
According to Brueggemann, 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. 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." Psalm 139 is about our call from God, yes, but it's also God's reassurance that, no matter what anyone says and no matter what befalls us, in every moment of our lives, we are precious, beloved in God's sight, and magnificent examples of God's powers in creation. (We can understand why this text follows last week's "Beloved" reading about baptism and call.)
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 beautiful text to share 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 his own three children, 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.
A little child will lead you
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 Beau 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.
Proving we're "good enough"
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....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." 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 helplessly 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. It is at that moment, it seems, that the once-proud officer acknowledges the One who is truly sovereign in the life of all people, and all creation.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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."
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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Faith Formation Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, ⌐ 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ⌐1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.