SCRIPTURE LESSON: Psalm 139:1-6,13-18

On Wednesday, I told Pat Riddell that today’s reading is one of my all-time favorites. Hers, too, she smiled. Then she promptly sang a song from years ago, something inspired by the psalm.

I was touched—I can’t remember anyone ever doing this, spontaneously singing something from their faith journey. Rather than keep this moment between the two of us, I asked Pat if she would sing it for all of us this morning. (Ask Pat to sing.)

Whenever someone insists that the God of the Old Testament is problematic because He is so often vengeful or violent, I think of examples that contradict this perspective. I recall the soaring poetry of the Psalms and the bold prophets who speak of a God who extends new beginnings, a God who cares about justice for the most vulnerable. Whenever someone insists that the God of the Old Testament is one they have no respect for or interest in, I always call to mind today’s psalm and the gentle, intimate God portrayed here.

The words we hear this morning are not those of some idealist dreaming up a better God than the mean one some see in the Hebrew Scriptures. No. Our psalmist’s moving poetry flows from what we can surmise was an ineffable, unshakeable experience with God, something far too great to be adequately articulated but captured in writing nevertheless. A thousand years old, maybe more, the psalmist’s proclamation could have been written yesterday; that’s how contemporary it sounds.

Let’s listen to the psalmist’s words again so that they might sink just a little deeper into the soil of our hearts.

You know me, O Lord. You have searched me, and you know me. You know me from the inside out. You know me so well that even before I myself have spoken a word or have even begun to think of doing something, you are already attuned to what I will say or how I will move.

In other words, you know me better than I could ever possibly know myself, O Lord.

How, though? How does the Lord know all this? The psalmist stretches his or herself and then settles on this understanding: You formed me. You knit me together in secret. Well, before anyone laid eyes on me, long before I was born, you saw me. You beheld me.

In other words, there was never a time when God didn’t know the psalmist and, by extension, you and me. God has been present to us since before any human being could see or sense or even hope for us, long before we had names and stories, birthmarks, and birthdays.

What a compelling and beautiful God this is. The opposite of the gods the Greeks had were deities who lived at a distance and who were regularly capricious and even scandalous.

The God we find described today, the God of the Hebrew people, wraps Godself around our deepest selves like a warm, comforting blanket. This God beholds us tenderly, thoroughly. This God’s way with us is a healing balm for the hurts and disappointments the world so often inflicts because it doesn’t recognize our inherent belovedness or, worse, doesn’t care to.

As lovely as the God in today’s psalm might be, not everyone cares for Him. I can still remember my mouth falling open when a seminary classmate forcefully announced that the God portrayed in our psalm today made her feel claustrophobic and even a little creeped out.

“Give me some space, God,” my classmate shouted, jabbing a fist toward the ceiling. God knew and understood exactly why she would say that, of course. As for me, I decided this woman might have been recovering from being raised in an overcrowded household, a family of a few too many where everyone knew everyone else’s business and no one got a moment to themselves.

Our psalm today is pure poetry, an offering so delicious and nourishing that we could feast on it forever.

If we wanted to turn today’s psalm into something less soaring but no less true, something compact enough to slip into a coat pocket to read on a hard day or tuck into a secret compartment in our hearts, what words might we use to access the psalm’s gentle power? “Known and loved”, maybe. Or perhaps, “Loved thoroughly ahead of time.”

However we might condense our psalm, it’s a message worth having close at hand—most especially when we feel unseen, unloved, or unknown.

The mystical reality the psalmist is getting at this morning Jesus understood when he said, “The Father and I are one.” The Apostle Paul expressed the sentiment of the psalmist when he wrote to the church in Rome: “Nothing can or will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ.”

My classmate from years ago shocked me with her rejection of the God we find in today’s psalm. I wish I’d had the wherewithal to speak to her after class to say the God she was inclined to reject is the same God who saved me—and more than once.

My first genuinely adult prayer came when I realized that God was more aware of my personhood, my gifts and capacities, my wounds and wants than I myself could ever be. In that first real prayer of mine, I asked God to show me how I should spend my life; you see, I had gotten it all wrong on my own and now was clueless and not a little bit afraid of the future.

I can’t remember if I knew Psalm 193 or not, but somehow I trusted that God knew me more fully and more graciously than I would ever know myself. The God who has always known me, always been with me, did indeed show me the way. More than once, as I said.

The God who has always and ever known me has never failed to put to use the best in me. This God has also used for the good what I thought were flaws or failings. The God who has known me and loved me from even before my beginning has never asked me to distort or diminish myself and has given me nothing but assurance that I am perfectly loved even though I am imperfect.

God is this way with everyone, of course. Even as we are taking shape in our mother’s wombs, God knows and loves the contours and colors of our innermost beings. God is aware of our gifts and inclinations and potential. God values and honors our distinctiveness, our particularity, and all those things, great and small, that serve to make me, me, and you, you.

If we let this awareness sink in, sink all the way in, how differently might we look in the mirror, into the eyes of friends and strangers? Knowing and feeling God’s intimate connection with us, what might we want for ourselves and others except that we each might fully and freely be the people whom God knows and loves?

Father Thomas Merton, the poet, prophet, and priest who lived as a Trappist monk at Gethsemani Abbey in central Kentucky, was on a shopping errand in downtown Louisville one day when what God sees in us all the time became real for him for a few moments—without warning everyone swirling around him on the busy corner of 4th and Walnut began to radiate the light of God.

Later Merton would make stabs at describing his mystical experience. This is the sacred burden of every mystic, of course, sharing what happened and what that moment meant.

There is, Merton would later write, something within each of us that belongs only to God and is known only to God. Merton called this the point of nothingness, but a better word might be emptiness, a place entirely untouched by the world and its wiles.

This place within, Merton wrote, is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everyone, he insisted, and if we could see it in others, we would see billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all darkness and cruelty vanish completely.

I have no program for this seeing, Merton would confess. Only certainty that it is a given. The gate of heaven, Merton insisted, is everywhere—and is in every one of us. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, slightly adapted.)

I have long loved today’s psalm and Merton’s unbidden experience in downtown Louisville. Together they reflect a revolutionary truth: God loves each of us more in a single moment than any human could in a lifetime.

How would we treat ourselves and everyone else if we were in touch with all this? As Merton said, if we were able to see ourselves and others as God sees us, all darkness and cruelty would vanish completely. Why? Because we would not accept having anyone’s light dimmed or hidden under a bushel. Think of all we would strive to change—the crippling poverty that stunts possibilities in others, the wars that take the most innocent and promising among us, the biases around gender and race, sexuality, and national origin that stunt the lives of so many.

Wherever we find poverty, fear, hate, and injustice, we find brothers and sisters, even whole communities, whose gifts and inclinations and potential go unexpressed and ungiven. I can’t help but think how the God of today’s psalm must grieve all that is lost to the human family because so many cannot be and become the people and the blessings that God already experiences.

Even though we cannot see ourselves and others exactly as God does, still we must take action wherever we can to ensure that those around us are not kept trapped in lives too small, are not imprisoned by unjust circumstance or hate, are not prevented from becoming the whole, worthy, and beloved children God created them to be.

We do what we can when we can. I’m thinking now of the black elementary school teacher who invites each of his young students to don his doctoral cap and gown so that they might feel the potential for excellence stirring in them and that they might be helped to sense how God’s blessing rests upon them even now, even before they have graduated sixth grade.

We are only halfway to the life God calls us to when we say to ourselves and others, “You are known and loved by God.”

By what we do and say, by how we vote and spend our money, by how we pray and act for the common good, we can help create conditions by which the world can affirm what God has already affirmed in them. We can work toward that day that Dr. King and so many like him have seen, a day when all God’s children are able to give full expression to the person God has known and loved even before they took birth.

May the God who has known us and loved us, the God who hems us in behind and before, the God who has formed and who sustains us, enable us to know our worth, and from this worth create with God a world where every soul’s gifts can be given and celebrated. Amen.