Sermon: June 3, 2018 – Psalm 139: 1-18
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
This week, Shannon and I were talking about the 139th Psalm and how much we both love it. And the next thing we realized, is that neither of us had preached on this Psalm on a Sunday – at funerals, yes, but not in Sunday worship. So it was time to take a bit more rigorous approach to this Psalm, and what I learned, to my delight and my dismay, is the range of folks who have taken Psalm 139 as a ringing endorsement for their position on a social issue.
I am delighted to hear that this Psalm has, for decades, been a particular favourite of the LGBTQ community. “Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, (quoted by Van Biema) … recalls a gay pride parade some years ago where she noticed a simple white poster bearing only the words ‘FEARFULLY AND WONDERFULLY MADE.’ …a phrase that had, privately, played a huge role in her own coming out.” For a community that has forever been told that it is morally defective, or that it needs to be cured in order to be put back the way God wants them to be, to hear the affirming words of the 139th Psalm declaring “I am wonderfully made” could very well be the moment of truly believing that you are beloved and worthy and a child of God.
I am dismayed to hear that this Psalm is also a particular favourite of those who would deny women their reproductive rights. David Van Biema, writing in Huffington Post, states that “for decades, Psalm 139 has been a byword of the anti-abortion movement, printed on posters in crisis pregnancy centers. More recently, [phrases like ‘knit together in my mother’s womb’ and ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ have been] tied to high-resolution ultrasounds, the movement’s most potent technological persuader”.
I am both delighted and dismayed to hear ways that this Psalm interacts with the disabled community. A recent newsletter of L’Arche Canada, where “people with and without intellectual disabilities live, work, and learn together creating communities of friendship and belonging,” connects their mission of celebrating the unique value of each person, of all abilities, to this notion of each of us being “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Yet, I also read a particularly challenging article from the Baylor University Centre for Christian Ethics, which examined the use of amniocentesis and diagnostic imagery to detect genetic anomalies in a fetus, potentially setting up, as the article states, “a criterion against which every human life must justify itself before being granted the right to enter human society”. We celebrate the way that God has put us together, but then make decisions as to what kinds of lives we believe to be “worth living” and which ones would be just too difficult. It causes one to pause and think of what we consider to be a “wonderfully made” person, and what we see as being outside that.
So with this kind of emotional landscape for the 139th Psalm, what might we make of this ancient, poetic declaration of God’s involvement in every moment of our life? When a scripture speaks this strongly to people on very different places on the theological and political spectrum, how do we hear it and proclaim it?
To me, the key is to fully embrace the deeply emotional nature of these words. These words touch us. They impact us in the heart, in the gut, in the soul. So let’s spend some time with that.
I hear the words “wonderfully made” and they call me out, for every time that I have judged my own body, or someone else’s. Especially in a world where a smartphone photo of someone whose appearance is deemed to be sub-standard or amusing gets circulated for everyone to deride – a world where withering online comments about the physical appearance of a female newscaster, politician or athlete get posted without challenge – the phenomenon of body-shaming speaks of a society that has completely lost its way, and our need to rediscover the strength of civility and community.
I hear the words, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” and in my mind’s eye, I see God doing this (hand knitting) or this (petit-point) or this (quilting). And within this realm of images, my favourite one might be this – God creating a granny-square afghan. For this image in particular, states that I am unique but so are all these other Divinely crocheted elements, all part of the same lovingly crafted creation. And the other thing this image does, is it brings me close to a title for God that our indigenous sisters and brothers have introduced me to: “Grandmother.”
I hear the words “searched me and known me” and the assurance of a God whose loving care follows me whether I “ascend to heaven” or “make my bed in the depths,” and my heart reaches out to every soul that feels alienated, misunderstood, alone. There is nothing wrong with solitude, says the introvert in the pulpit, but when that turns to isolation we all have a problem. And so this Psalm invites us to see the world through God’s eyes of searching care, to recognize isolation when we see it in the child who retreats into an online fantasy world, in the unrelenting trauma of lingering grief, in the suspicious gaze of the homeless one, in those who learn to make themselves invisible to avoid the scorn of others. God not only knows us but seeks us out, and as those who embody the love of Christ, that is our work to do as well.
I hear the words, “you hem me in” and my initial claustrophobia at this picture of being enclosed by God, is replaced by times in my life when knowing that I was surrounded on all sides, by people who loved me, has made all the difference in the world. My Mom grew up in rural Ontario, and since both of her parents came from big families my mom had 49 first cousins, most of whom lived within 10 miles of her. My Mom grew up with that “hemmed in” experience, of being surrounded by kinfolk, so the concept of a God who was everywhere you turned, well, that was just like home for her. But work took my parents two provinces west of where they had grown up, so in my elementary school years, none of my eight first cousins lived within a thousand miles of us. And while a part of me has loved that autonomy, I acknowledge a loss in that as well, and perhaps that is why I have always valued Church so much – being part of a circle of love, of being supported and, at times, corrected by folks of many ages and approaches to life, bound together by the holy kinship of Divine Parent, Blessed Child and Holy Spirit. I am starting to learn an even broader version of this through the wonderful indigenous concept of “all my relations” where each bit of creation is evidence of the Creator’s love for all.
There is much that we gain from the Bible in helping us to think through our daily living – that intellectual relationship with The Word is important to us. But when we encounter passages like this Psalm, we are reminded of the emotional significance of scripture. So let us allow these words to move us, guide us, change us. May we let the emotional impact of these words continually shape how we as a Church relate to the community around us. For God speaks, not only to our minds but to our hearts. And in this spirit, of emotional connectedness I close with a heartfelt reflection by Professor Shauna Hannan. She writes,
“My nephew was born on the day I started working on this commentary. When the picture of Mason James arrived, my initial thoughts were, ‘There you are. What were you doing in there all of these months?’ And then I read: ‘”For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb (vs. 13)’.
“’How did you go from a hoped-for dream of your parents to flesh and blood, bones, muscles and those long, skinny fingers and those cute ears?’ I wondered. Then I read: “’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.’ (vs. 15). “I wanted to shout, ‘Mason, you are perfect.’ Yet this acclamation paled in comparison to his parents’ ‘You are perfect!’ which pales in comparison to God’s ‘You are PERFECT!’
“My hope for this little guy on his first day, his birth day, was that one day he would realize and pray with the psalmist, “’I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (vs. 14).
“[May each of us know, and convey to others,] God’s deep relationship of love that is with us from the beginning … and even before that … and today… and from this day forward”.
In the name of God, our lover and creator, who speaks to us through word and thought and emotion and the fullness of all creation, Amen.
Brock, Brian. “The Lure of Eugenics”. The Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/188191.pdf
Van Biema, David. “Psalm 139 used by Pro-Life, Gay Rights groups,” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/psalm-139-two-causes-two-meanings_n_1386492.html?ref=religion
See also Stott, Joan. http://www.thetimelesspsalms.net/w_resources/pentecost16c_2016.htm
© 2018 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church