The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday, May 10, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Saturday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Psalms tend to be relational. That’s part of their appeal for use in prayer. Tonight’s psalm, Psalm 139, describes a particularly intimate relationship between God and the psalmist. God is addressed as Yahweh, which was Israel’s personal name for God. (1,4)  In just the first six verses, God is addressed as “you” ten times – “you have searched,” “you know,” and so on and the psalmist also refers to themself thirteen times, “when I sit down and when I rise up,” “my thoughts,” “my path.”   (Nancy deClaisse-Walford)

Walter Brueggemann has observed that, “The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter.”  In Psalm 139, as in many others, there is both a “known, named, identifiable You,” and a known, identifiable “I.”

This is not a song about abstract ideas.  This psalm is inherently relational, describing the relationship between the You and the I, between God and the writer of the psalm.

About halfway through Psalm 139 the psalmist asks a question, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

The answer?

Nowhere, because God is everywhere.  The imagery used – heaven, Sheol, etc. is meant to tell us that no matter how high, or how low, or how far away the psalmist travels, there is nowhere that God is not present.  Even if the psalmist were to “take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,” God is there. (9). God is present in the light of day and the dark of night. God is everywhere.

In another psalm, Psalm 121, this idea reappears when the psalmist says “the One who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (St Helena’s translation)

Many of us have come to find this idea really comforting thanks in large part to Alana Levandoski’s song setting “God who watches over you.”

About 10 years ago now, I was part of a community that purchased a large home in the hope of being able to provide housing for people who were experiencing homelessness.

As part of that process we gutted the attic to create additional bedrooms and before we put up the drywall,  we prayed together in that space and then we went around writing blessings all over the beams.  One person wrote, “He who watches over you will never slumber nor sleep” over all the spaces where we knew beds would eventually go.”

The experience and the choice of that scripture passage were so beautiful to me that I posted the pictures on Facebook and showed them to friends.

One friend, commenting on a photo of a framed-out bedroom asked me why anyone would have chosen to put that particular phrase over someone’s bed. I tried to explain what a comfort the idea was and how we were trying to prepare these spaces to be a place of safety for people.

She listened and she said, “Well I guess, given your explanation, it could be comforting, but I think the idea of someone watching me the whole time I’m sleeping is incredibly creepy. I guess it all depends on who’s watching.”

Fair point. Context is everything.

If we understand God as good and loving, then knowing God will always watch over us is a comfort.  If we view God as judgmental, always watching in order to zap us when we misbehave, then it’s more than creepy, it’s downright terrifying.

The psalmist doesn’t portray God as creepy or terrifying, instead the psalmist indicates that knowing that God is everywhere inspires a sense of awe.  They say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (6)

They can’t explain it, but they believe it. They’ve experienced the inescapable presence of God and it fills them with awe.

The Psalmist also tells us that God isn’t simply always present watching us dispassionately and trying to guess what we’re thinking, always trying to determine our motivations from our actions.  God is also not watching, somewhat bored, because God already knows exactly what is going to happen. Rather, God is engaged in an active process of searching, and knowing.

The Psalm opens:

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.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.

The Hebrew verb translated as “you discern,” (zrh) is the same word used to describe sifting wheat from chaff.  (New International Biblical Commentary)

I’ve never sifted wheat from chaff, but I have sometimes sorted rice or lentils or beans. I love the feeling of sticking my hands deep into the bucket and seeing what I pull up.  It’s an active and ever-changing process. Just when you think you’re done, you dig a little deeper and discover there is still more sorting to be done. Similarly, God’s knowledge of us is not static, it is an active process.

Through this process God knows us so well that God knows what we’re going to do and say before we do and say anything.

The psalmist continues:

You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

When you hear, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” How does that make you feel?  Do you feel protected or stifled?  Do you imagine God’s hands feel comforting, or oppressive?  Does it feel like a weighted blanket that provides comfort and helps you sleep soundly, or does it feel claustrophobic, like you have no room to move or breathe or be.

Being known is a vulnerable thing, especially if we aren’t sure we can trust the other person.

The Psalmist believes that ultimately God can be trusted, that God is worthy of knowing and being known by.  They express a sense of comfort that no matter where they go God’s “hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (10)

I agree that God can be trusted and is worth getting to know, but I also understand that many, many people have been taught such an unhealthy understanding of who God is that they won’t be able to make that leap.  I also know that sometimes, what I believe in my head has a hard time sinking down into the rest of my body.  My brain may say “God is trustworthy,” and yet I still hesitate and doubt.  My brain may say, “God loves you,” but my heart says, “That can’t be true, you are fundamentally unlovable.”

Be gentle with yourself if that is your experience.

Understanding who God really is is a process that takes a lifetime. It is a process of learning and unlearning but I do believe that ultimately the process and hard work will be worth it. Finding someone you trust to help you sift and sort your understanding of who God is an invaluable part of this process. Send me a message if you’d like some help figuring out how to begin.

And don’t expect to figure it all out right away.  In fact, don’t expect to figure it out. Be very wary of people who believe they have everything figured out, who believe they have nothing new to learn about God.

Just a God is described as continually getting to know us by sifting and sorting, this is also how we get to know God.  If we actively engage in the process, if we dig our hands in the wheat, then our understanding of God’s character will continue to change and grow.  God doesn’t actually change, but our understanding will.

It won’t necessarily look like a radical shift but it will shift. There is always something new we can learn about God.

It’s hard though, and our own perceptions and expectations often get in the way. That’s at least in part what’s happening in today’s gospel reading. The disciples have such a fixed idea of who they think God is, that they fail to recognize God even when God is sitting right next to them.

Thomas and Philip and many others spent extended periods of time with Jesus and yet they were still confused about who he is.

At one point Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus replies, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (8-9)

Jesus goes on to explain that to know Jesus is to know God, they are indivisible, interconnected, they are one and the same.

Can you picture the disciples scratching their heads while trying to understand what Jesus is saying? These are the sorts of mysteries that take a long time to sink into our understanding and even then, the best we can usually do is say, “It’s a mystery, I don’t have to be able to explain everything about it in order to know that it is true.”

Jesus then moves on to explain how to identify a person who believes that Jesus is who he says he is.  Jesus followers will not be identified by their ideas, they will not be identified by their ability to correctly rattle of a list of doctrines or dogmas. The sign that a person knows Jesus, is not what they believe, it’s how they behave.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (12)

To believe in Jesus is to behave like Jesus. Take for example the parable of the two sons in Matthew.  In that story, one son says he will do what his father asks of him, and doesn’t. The other son says he will not do what his father asks him to do, but then he does.  Which one does Jesus say did God’s will?  The one with the right words or the one with the right actions? (Matthew 21:28-32)

The one with the right actions. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

How does our behaviour demonstrate what we actually believe?  Where are there consistencies, and inconsistencies.

First, I want to suggest that one of the primary behaviours someone who wants to follow Jesus needs to adopt is the ability to admit when they have missed the mark. There is a reason that in our prayer of confession we say, “the people we can’t quite manage to be.”  Because we’re going to mess up.  Perfection is not the goal, humility and awareness are. We are trying to model our actions on Jesus’, but we won’t always get it right, and we should freely and humbly apologize whenever we miss the mark.

I think our current times provide us with an opportunity to better align our beliefs and our behaviour in a particular way.

We can, like the psalmist, develop a greater awareness of God’s constant, consistent presence in our day to day lives.

I know technically we’re in the season Easter but it still feels very much like Lent to me.  Lent is a season that encourages us to ask, ‘What can I learn about myself and about God by removing something from my life?”

A lot of things have been removed from our lives lately, it hasn’t entirely been by choice, it’s sort of a forced Lent, but we can still learn from it.

This building and the gatherings we hold inside it have never been the only places that we could encounter God.  How might we continue to exercise our ability to encounter God in all things and all places in this time when we cannot gather to experience God’s presence in this space?

I know many of you are asking these questions already and it’s been delightful to hear stories of how you are encountering God in your day to day lives. In caring for each other, in quiet times, in nature, in preparing food.

I hope you’ll continue to do this or be inspired to try.  Like with our physical muscles, the more you practice awareness, the stronger your ability to be aware will become.

And as always, be gentle when yourself when God feels far away or entirely absent. Sometimes we just can’t access that sense of God’s presence even when we believe deeply that God is indeed present.

God is always present whether we know it or not, whether we can access that sense of awareness or not. Be gentle with yourself in those times when you just can’t sense that God is there and savour the moments when God feels so nearby that you can God hand on your shoulder.

May you seek and find God in unexpected places this week.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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