139 Words to Live By

Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2016 || Proper 18, Year C || Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33 || Amy Whitcomb Slemmer

It is the last Sunday of our summer schedule. We are surrounded by beauty, buffered by wind and the hint of a fall chill in the air. I realize some are excited to move into fall – a new teacher or new classes, new colleagues or the return of programs that you have missed. However if you are like me, you are trying desperately to hold on to as much of the relaxed schedule that summer allows as possible. But once Labor Day is in the rear view mirror, it is impossible to ignore that some of us are headed back into the break neck pace of frequent deadlines, overlapping schedules, fleeting glances at loved ones and for some, the requirement to schedule fun, respite or Sabbath, with sincere intention and sometimes, very far in advance.

I have been searching for solace this week, looking for ways to knit summer and the availability for spontaneity into my ongoing expectations for the fall. I am heartened, that from our lectionary’s perspective, we are actually only mid-season of ordinary time – which began on May 15th with Pentecost and will continue until just after Thanksgiving when we enter a brand new program year with the first Sunday of Advent.

I appreciate that ordinary time is the longest season of our liturgical calendar because we are meant to practice Jesus’ teachings and work on living the life he models and prescribes. There are no feast days or high religious holidays to distract us or interfere with our being who we are and worshipping and connecting just as ourselves.

Today’s Gospel according to Luke finds Jesus out in the world, teaching and traveling with a large crowd declaring “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself, can not be my disciple”, the passage just read also says that we are to take up the cross and give up all our possessions.

This is not exactly the warm and fuzzy – love everybody, listen-to-the-children-Jesus so easy to imagine as we gather on the beach or in our warm summer sanctuary. No, this is the Jesus that Margot preached about less than a month ago, when she walked us through a similarly difficult passage. Remember, Jesus declared that he came to divide and not unite, he asserted himself as the radical counter cultural figure we know him to be? Margot did a really good job of putting this Scary Jesus into helpful, if not challenging, perspective.

This morning’s Scary Jesus is similarly motivated. He is telling his listeners that they must love Him above all and before everyone else. We are not to put our possessions, friends, professional accomplishments or personal relationships above or before our relationship with God. It is hard to imagine that we could love anyone more than our parents, partners, pets, spouses or friends, but Jesus is saying that we must love him first and we must love him more than all else.

But how do we know how to do that? How do we know how to turn from our earthly family ties and connections, from the thrill of success or the social rewards of wealth, to the divine orientation – truly toward God?

Fortunately, the lectionary for today provides a pretty wonderful clue. We are to love God as God loves us, and our assigned readings for this morning include Psalm 139, which is among my very favorite in all of the 150 psalms in our prayer book, as it details exactly how God loves us.

I love today’s psalm because it assures us not just of the fact that God loves us, but that God knows absolutely everything about us – from when we sit and stand to what we think to what we are going to say even before we say it.

This psalm reminds us that God made us, wonderfully and marvelously – saw us in our mother’s womb and that even then, our bodies were not hidden or secret from God. This is a tactile relationship. We are not just God’s good idea. In this psalm we are reminded that God physically formed us; knit us together, pressing upon us behind and before and laying his hand upon us.

I love this reminder of God’s omnipotence, and omniscient presence. I find it both humbling – oh I can’t hide anything from the divine — and comforting – God knows me, God loves me, delights in my existence, and has a place and purpose for each of us.

Margot and I have used this psalm as part of the initiation to the Journey to Adulthood for our tweens and teenagers. With its knowing assurance and loving acceptance it offers a helpful prayer as an antidote to the inherent self-doubt and increasing influence of friends, peers and media which conspire to suggest that a young person must conform or change to be popular, or rebel against church, family or teachers in order to assert independence.

Psalm 139 suggests none of that is required. It makes clear that we are wonderfully made, exactly as we are, a message helpful for adults as well when we may be struggling to find happiness or frustrated with our circumstances, lonely or fearful, broken hearted or hopeless. This psalm with its soaring language reminds us of our origins, of our divine connection and of the magnitude of this reality – it says “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain to it”.

Psalm 139 is definitely one of my very favorite psalms, I wonder whether you have you found a favorite psalm, or one that brightens your day or comforts you when you come across it?

As part of my very early formation for the priesthood I read an instruction guide on how to pray, meditate upon and use the psalms to draw us deeper into understanding the love of God. Written by Ben Patterson, the book was called “God’s Prayer Book” and part of what I found compelling was the notion that Jesus prayed the psalms. These concepts and the relationship with God expressed in the psalms were part of Jesus’ own earthly formation. Imagine that, as we say or sing a psalm at each service. These were words or concepts that helped Jesus pray and connect to our Father.

Ben Patterson suggests 5 distinct ways to pray with and relate to the psalms:

  1. Read them out loud – this opportunity comes to us each Sunday. Pray them, making the words come from our heart, as these are both words that God has given us, and the words that God wants to hear from us.
  2. Make the appointed psalm our own by considering the 3 R’s as we read; Rejoice, Repent, Request– what invites us to rejoice – giving thanks and praise; what suggests that we repent – as we read, what is evoked that requires shedding some light on some sin or shortcoming in our lives? And as we read, what request does it evoke? What prayers for others or prayers for ourselves does the psalmist’s words bring to mind?
  3. Summarize and reword the psalms using our own words – read and meditate on the psalm, reflecting on the concepts describe. Put the ideas in our own words, which we can then pray – delighting God.
  4. Become familiar enough with the psalms so that we know which speak to us in different circumstances, or comfort us when we are in a particular mood, or draws us closer to God when we may be struggling or feeling apart. There are resources that divide up our Psalter into different categories so that some of this work has been done for us
  5. Finally – and this is something that I have not done, but am clear is my next step in my relationship with Psalm 139 – memorize the psalms, so that the words become our own words that we can recite verbatim allowing God’s words to transform our understanding. What a gift to be able to call upon this prayer at anytime, from memory. How marvelous to be able to recite Psalm 139 anytime I’m struggling to find my own prayers or divine presence, this psalm will be a reminder or an invitation to draw closer to God.

We have a number of prayers that we have memorized – think of your relationship with the Lord’s Prayer. When do you skip right through it without reflecting on its power and promise? When have you been brought up short with some new insight or reflection as you’ve made your way through this ancient prayer? Memorizing some psalms offers you many more opportunities to express ancient thoughts, to pray prayers handed down through the ages, but to experience them in a new, fresh and meaningful way.

I’ll end this morning’s sermon by asking that we read Psalm 139 responsively so that we are both saying and listening to the words. See what concept strikes you. Pay attention to whether you are comforted by being wholly known by God, or you are concerned about this level of intimacy and why.

Praying this psalm requires us to give thanks for God’s work of creating us. When was the last time you felt called to thank God for you – not the egotistical – “thank God for me” but rather the personal reflective and grateful – “thank you God for making me”?

As we make this transition from summer fun back into a more serious learning and perhaps productive mode that is fall, I invite you to take on a new relationship with the psalms. Consider incorporating one of the five ways of relating to the psalms into your spiritual practices. Even if it just means truly praying the assigned psalm when we sing or recite it on Sundays in church.

Ancient words, ancient wisdom, timeless experiences and a time honored invitation to a connection with God through God’s own prayers. Amen.



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