Sunday, January 18, 2009
A Fearful and Wonderful Knowing: Sermon on Psalm 139 and 1 Samuel 3:1-10
There is nothing in the world that compares with the experience of being with someone who truly knows you. Think about what it is like for those of you who have a brother or a sister, or a spouse or partner, those who have a parent or a child or a dear friend of whom you can say: she knows me better than I know myself.
Just think: you look into someone’s eyes, and he or she knows what you are feeling at that moment without your saying a word. You leave a party together, or a movie, or church, and each of you knows without being told what the other one is thinking, how you loved this particular part of the conversation, or you hated that particular character in the film, or how the minister’s tendency to run-on sentences drives you crazy.
When you are sick they know what you need, as they do when you are sad or frightened or lonely. They know what time you get up, so they can call you without waking you. Or they know that you won’t mind a wake-up call, from them. They know your habits… where you are likely to be at what hour of the day. It is a wonderful thing to be known in this way.
It can also be terrible. When someone knows you intimately, there is nowhere to hide. You can’t pretend you didn’t know that thing that he hates. He knows that you know it, so every time you do it it’s a willful act of aggression. You can’t pretend you didn’t know when her birthday was, or what her favorite flavor is, or that she wanted you to rent “An Affair to Remember” and you came home with “The Guns of Navaronne.” You can’t pretend. She knows that you know. It can be a terrible thing, in a wonderful way.
For me, it was my mom. A few words on the phone and she knew if I was happy or sad or getting sick from 250 or a thousand miles away. It was both a wonderful and a terrible, fearful thing, not to be able to hide from this woman who knew me better, often, than I knew myself.
God knows us with a fearful and wonderful knowing. Imagine how far we can take the words of the psalm: “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. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:1-4).
God knows us. God knows everything about us. Like a loving sister, like an attentive lover, like a doting father, God knows everything that makes us tick, that gives us joy, that scares the daylights out of us. God’s knowing of us extends beyond who we are now, and back to who we were and who we were meant to be. Our frames were not hidden from God, when we were being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. God’s eyes beheld our unformed substance. In the Divine book were written all the days that were formed for us, when none of them as yet existed” (Psalm 139:15-16). God knew us, from the beginning, from before the beginning, when each of us was just a twinkle in our parents’ eyes, a thought, a hunch. God’s knowing of us is wonderful.
And God’s knowing of us is terrible and fearful, too. There are parts of this psalm that the lectionary advises us to skip right over, words and sentiments that feel unsavory, the parts we would rather not read because they speak of feelings and attitudes we would prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me… Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:19, 21-22). God sees those ugly parts of ourselves… the parts that hang on to bitterness, to anger, to hurt. God knows the parts of us that could envision, even if for just a moment, doing violence to someone, making our hate for them a centerpiece of our moral vision. God knows all this. God’s knowing of us is wonderful and fearful.
God knew Samuel in just this way. God knew Samuel’s past. God knew all about his brokenhearted mother Hannah, unable to conceive and desperately jealous of her husband’s other, fertile wife. (Remind me, someday, to preach a sermon on “Biblical family values.”) God knew how Hannah stood in the temple at Shiloh praying, her lips moving but no sound coming out, so that the attending priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and tried to shoo her away. God knew how Eli, moved by her plight, interceded, offered his own prayers to God on her behalf, and so Hannah conceived and bore a son, Samuel. God knew Samuel even before he was born.
God knew Samuel when his mother dedicated him to God. One old fashioned, biblical definition of a tithe is to give your firstborn to God, and Hannah did just that, turning Samuel over to Eli while he was still a small boy. “And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the LORD,” we are told… God knew Samuel. God had his eye on Samuel, because something was not right, and God had need of Samuel to step up, to step in to fix things. Imagine. Samuel, a young child, away from his parents and given over to the service of God in the temple: and God already had a plan for him, a plan hatched probably before he himself was hatched.
Here was the problem: Eli was good and faithful, but his sons were corrupt, and God had had enough of them. God knew them, too. God knew they were abusing their power and abusing the people who came to the temple to make offerings. And God had another vision in mind for his servants. So God called Samuel.
We don’t know exactly how old Samuel was in this scene, when he was sleeping near the Ark of the Covenant—in the very presence of God. The text calls him a “boy.” I don’t think we have to work it all out in detail, but I do think it’s good for us to remember: God sometimes calls people who are still young, still untried and untested, to make big changes, to make a difference in the world.
God called Samuel, this young person whom God already knew intimately. And what a shock that first contact must have been for the boy. God isn’t breaking Samuel in gradually. It’s not as if God says, “Well, Samuel, you are growing nicely, so, I’ll tell you what: you can light the lamps in the temple now. “ No. Samuel’s first assignment from God is to call down hellfire and judgment on Eli’s family.
God knows us in ways that are wonderful and fearful, and God’s call can be wonderful and fearful too. I think it’s safe to assume that God only commissions us for work that we are in fact able to do… with God’s help, of course. But sometimes the work to which we are called is not fun. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the servants of God. Sometimes it’s hurricanes, and tsunamis.
God called Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into a virtual firestorm. The nation was torn apart by two wars, one abroad and one at home. God did not break him in gradually, either. King rose to prominence as an organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott when he was all of 26 years old, and he continued to move the civil rights movement forward by preaching and modeling nonviolent action until an assassin’s bullet ended his life. He hadn’t reached the age of 40. No one could call the path he walked an easy one. But it was a God-given one. God knew this man was equal to the task, this man who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I imagine God knew Martin Luther King in much the way God knew Samuel. God called one to make a change in religious leadership in the temple, and the other to fashion a change in the very fabric of society. Both were called at times of upheaval and uncertainty. But both were called by a God who knew them intimately, and who remained with them through all their days. God searches us and knows us and calls us to tasks greater than we are, and promises to remain with us while we accomplish them. God knows us with a wonderful and fearful knowing, and calls us, at times, to hard work, to transformational work, to the kind of work that makes us tremble in our shoes but which is, nonetheless, ours to carry on, and to carry out.
I wonder: what work is God calling us to do, both as individuals and as a congregation? Is God calling us to the hard work of forgiveness? Is God calling us to the strenuous tasks of planning and envisioning the next right step for our lives together? Is God calling us to abandon what is familiar and comfortable, to step out into God’s new plan for our church? Is God calling us to get involved, to join a committee, to call the church office and say, “What can I do?”
And if God is calling us, what is our response? Is it “Oh, five more minutes please”? Or is it, “Here I am, Lord”? When God calls our names, do we hear the voice of someone else by mistake? Or do we say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”?
There is nothing in the world that compares with the experience of being in relationship with the One who truly knows you. Just think about it: what it is like for each and every one of us to be able to say with utter confidence: God knows me better than I know myself.
God knows what and who it is that we love. God knows what and who it is that drives us crazy. When we are sick God knows what we need, just as when we are sad or frightened or lonely. God knows our sitting down and our rising up, and sometimes makes a wake-up call to us. And whether we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, or curl up in a familiar and beloved place, God is still there…still with us, still waiting for us, still calling our names. Thanks be to God. Amen.