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Do We Really Want to Be Known? -- Psalm 139 (6th Sunday After Pentecost)

I love Psalm 139. For most of my life this Psalm has been a source of comfort and assurance:

· When I have felt most alone, this Psalm says to me: God is with us. God is never far off. God is nearby: “O God, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I lie down and when I rise – you are with me in my coming and my going. You are familiar with all my ways.” Everywhere. All the time. In the heights. In the depths. God is there. With us.

· Psalm 139 holds the prayer I pray when I’m on an air plane that’s taking off – that huge chunk of metal, with me in it, improbably lifting off the ground: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea... even there, your hand will hold me fast.”

· And. When the world has tried to tell me (and others like me) that we are somehow less than, I can reach further down into the Psalm and say, “No. I am fearfully and wonderfully made. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. You, God, wove me together in the depths of the earth. You saw me and shaped me from before the beginning. I know that all your works are wonderful.”

Psalm 139 is a psalm of comfort, assurance, and intimacy – intimacy with God: “O God, you have searched me, and you know me.”[1]

But the theme of this sermon is: “Do we really want to be known?”

O God, you have searched me. And you know me.”

And I’m going to ask it flat out: “Do we really want to be known?”

Because it seems to me that we spend an awful lot of time trying hard not to be known. Think about it.

On the public level, we have all sorts of protections against being known. Legal protections. Constitutional protections – for our right to privacy; protections against being searched. And those are good and worthy protections – protections against the abuse of power – protections FOR our dignity and FOR our autonomy.

On the personal level, we want these same protections in our daily life, too – a certain amount of privacy – if not necessarily as a matter of law, as a matter of common decency.

Let me put it this way, if I’m going to be honest here, there are some things about me that I just don’t want y’all to know. And I’ll start off easy. I don’t want you to know what I look like first thing in the morning. I will confess that when I was deciding whether or not to offer 7am morning prayer this summer, one of the considerations was whether I thought I could be camera ready by 7am.

A little more deeply: I also don’t want you to know what I’m like when I am at my inter-personal worst. When I’m fed up and irritable, when I let those words fly, those hurtful words, those words that know where the tender spots are and go right for them. Those words that come out of my mouth – that I can almost see float there as they’re spoken – as I desperately, desperately want to call them back.

I don’t want you to know the ugly. And frankly, I’d rather that God not search me there – in those places. Let’s just stay with the “fearfully and wonderfully made” part.

Now, I’ve been careful to speak for my own experience. Maybe that’s just me. But if you’re wondering... I’d invite you sometime this week to take a moment and say, “God, I don’t want you to know.....” and see if anything comes to fill in the blank.

The Psalm assures us: God searches us and God knows us.

God is familiar with all our ways—all our comings, all our goings,

everything we do.

God knows our every thought. God knows our every word.

God is all up in our business. God is all up in our grill.

Always nearby.

“O God, you have searched us and you know us.” Every bit of us.

Do we really want to be known? Like that.

I’ve talked with some of you this week, and know that other folks have deep connections to this Psalm. I connect this Psalm to the writings of Dr. Howard Thurman, as I was introduced to Dr. Thurman by one of my teachers, Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.[2] Dr. Thurman was a foundational prophetic, spiritual thinker and leader in the civil rights movement. Howard Thurman stood in the midst of a community facing the worst of times – thinking and praying about what mattered most to sustain ourselves for the journey.

To the question, “Do we really want to be known like that?” Dr. Howard Thurman would say: We have to be known like that. Psalm 139 was Howard Thurman’s favorite Psalm – and within his prophetic spirituality, this being known honestly by God was essential to life and to the work of justice. Dr. Thurman described it this way: Being fully known means that God knows those moments where we have experienced joy and hope and awakening, AND, AND, God knows those moments where our response to human need has been half-hearted, where we’ve turned our back on truth and justice, where we have sat in deep despair. For Dr. Thurman, being searched and known – like that – is the essential path to deeper relationship with God – and to living a life that has meaning: We’ve got to let God know us, if we want to know God.

Psalm 139 invites us into what I might call “brave space.” I learned that phrase from anti-racism educator Shandhya Ja.[3] When I worked in higher ed, we used to talk about creating “safe space” – a space for learning where the integrity of each person is protected and safe – where each person can be who they are. That’s a good thing. But in my last few years at the seminary, we started talking about “brave space.” Shandhya Ja suggests that we can’t really have honest conversations in something we call “safe space” – if that space keeps us safe from our own discomfort – if that space keeps us safe from being searched and known.

For honest conversation, we need something that is more courageous. So she encourages folks to talk in terms of brave space

· brave space that leaves room for discomfort where it is needed to name hard realities and truth –

· brave space that leaves room for correction –

· brave space that engages with curiosity –

· brave space that expects and embraces a lack of resolution

· brave space that might ask us to change.

Psalm 139 invites us to enter into brave space with God – and by implication with each other. Psalm 139 invites us to let God know us – every bit of us. It invites us to look at ourselves and our lives with clear eyes – and not just ourself as an individual – but ourself as a person embedded and connected in community. Psalm 139 invites us into brave space that leaves room for searching and knowing – room for discomfort – room for transformation.

In Psalm 139, the Psalmist goes there – into that brave space. We’ve been talking about the Psalms as songs/prayers that emerged out of life in community – songs that were sung and prayed in community – again and again – on down the generations – all the way to us. And, we know that individuals within those communities – including us – we also have turned to these Psalms, on our own, in the midst of our particular lives – prayed them in those moments of pain – in tender moments – in the quiet moments when we are alone. In these psalms of community, in this song book of life, Psalm 139 is about as intimate, as deeply personal as you can get. In this Psalm there is just “you and I” – just God and the Psalmist – the one praying, and the God to whom they pray. “You, God, have searched me, and you know me.” [4]

We don’t know the specific context out of which the Psalmist prays – what has happened – but we can tell that they are in pain – a pain that catches us off guard when it boils over into rage. Remember that “hating with a perfect hate” stuff? – the part of Psalm 139 that usually gets edited out from what we read in church. Some think the Psalmist may have experienced betrayal – or a violent attack.[5] They are part of a people who have experienced slavery, and wilderness wandering – starving, thirsting; a people taken into exile into Babylon, where they hung their harps in the trees – their songs stilled to silence.

We don’t know for sure the specific trauma or pain out of which the Psalmist sings – but we get to listen in – their words singing in our ears –and as we pray the psalm with them, their words spoken from our mouths. We get to listen in, as the Psalmist thinks all this through:

· God, you are the God who searches me, and knows me, every word I say, every path I take.

· God, you are the God who is with me wherever I go – if I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea.

· God, you are the God who created me – knit me together in the depths of the earth, you were with me in my mother’s womb – all the days of my life are in your hands.

· So God, here it is: I hate those who hate you. Those who malign and misuse your name. I hate them with a perfect hatred. I count them as my enemies.

The Psalmist lays it all out there – the things that we don’t say in church. It’s not that we should feel the things that the Psalmist feels – it’s that maybe sometimes we do – feel those things. Maybe it’s not the exact same as the Psalmist’s “perfect hate” – but things like that – the things we don’t – or would rather not – say out loud. The Psalmist lays it all out there and then says: OK, God: Search me, and know my heart – even this. Sort this out. Sort me out. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. Help me. Put your hand upon me and guide me – nudge me, push me if I need it, carry me – guide me in the way that lasts forever.

That takes some courage. And some vulnerability.

The question Psalm 139 puts before us is: Do we really want to be known this much? This intimately. Because such knowledge may be too wonderful for us, too lofty for us to bear. Do we really want to be known this much?

I think the answer, deep down, is yes. I might go so far as to say, this Psalm touches on what is perhaps the deepest longing of the human spirit. It is what Dr. Thurman says unites all faiths, all people of all religions -- this deep “hunger of the heart for God.”[6] We long for God this much.

The paradox of us is that we try so hard not to be known, -- when what we really, really want is to be known -- to be known fully and completely -- and to be loved. Dr. Thurman writes: "I do not know how it happens or quite how to describe it, but I do know that again and again [folks] have come away from prayer freed from guilt, and with their sin forgiven -- with a sense of being totally understood, completely dealt with, thoroughly experienced, and utterly healed."

We long to be known this much:

God has searched us and knows us

and God loves us still.

God perceives our thoughts from afar

and God loves us still.

God is familiar with all our ways

and God loves us still.

Before a word is on our tongue, God knows it completely

and God loves us still.

God knows that we flee from God’s Spirit

and God loves us still.

God knows that we try to hide in the darkness,

when even darkness is as light to God

and God loves us still.

God knit us together in our mother’s womb,

God’s Spirit accompanies us every minute of every day,

and when the time is right, God will bring us home.

From beginning to completion, and every moment in between,

God is with us in love.

This is how God searches. This is how God knows.

God searches us, knows us, and loves us still. God creates us, challenges us, recreates us – always in love. Psalm 139 whispers all that to us, in the tender quiet moments, when life is laid bare, and asks

Will we go into that brave and vulnerable space

of being fully known and fully loved?

Will we be open to how love like that might change us?

Psalm 139 comforts us and unsettles us.

Do we really want to be known? Like that.

And then the psalm invites us – invites us to join the Psalmist in this prayer:

Yes. Search me, O God, and know my heart.

Test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive, hurting way in me,

and lead me in the way that lasts forever.

Yes, God. Know me.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] For general background on Psalm 139 and the psalms generally, see J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iv (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 1233-38; Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.579-84; Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms Book2 4-5 (Wisdom Commentary) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020); Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, David T. Shannon & David T. Adamo, “Psalms” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 220-234; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007); W. David. O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020). [2] Some of what is said here of Howard Thurman’s teaching here is gleaned from class notes from lectures given by Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., who was a student of Thurman’s. See also Howard Thurman’s reflection on Psalm 139, which can be found in full in For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman (Friends United Press, 1984); Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit (Friends United Press, 1963); Howard Thurman, A Strange Freedom (ed. Walter Earl Fluker & Catherine Tumbler) (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1988). [3] To learn more about Sandhya Ja’s teaching and writing, you can visit her website here: [4] See Alter, p.479 (describing Psalm 139 as “one of the most remarkably introspective psalms”): McCann, p.1236 (“To be known is to be completely vulnerable.”). [5] See, e.g., Brueggemann, p.581; deClaissé-Walford, p.401. [6] See Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit (Friends United Press,1963).

Photo Credit: Benjamin Voros, used with permission via Unsplash

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