One of the things I liked to do when I was a kid was to make models. When I saved up my money from babysitting or mowing lawns, if I could be dissuaded from buying a book, I would sometimes buy a model kit to build. Being a complete history buff and science fiction nerd, the completed models I made are somewhat eclectic: a 1950s era Willys drag racer; a P- 51 Mustang airplane; a bi-plane; the Space Shuttle Enterprise with jet airplane to carry it; A Star Trek USS Enterprise; an X-wing and a TIE fighter from Star Wars. And one thing I learned about making these models: putting them together, piece by piece, made you much more intimately acquainted with these machines (even the make-believe ones) than simply looking at them or reading about them, even through a simple plastic model kit.
Yet the knowledge I gained from building a model of those machines is really scant knowledge, indeed. I really only learned about the outward appearance of those models—what was on the inside, what made them work, was still a mystery to me. To really know those machines, one would have to make a complete, working version—even better would be making one from scratch. Our psalm expands upon the idea we’ve heard throughout Epiphany of being known intimately by God who is our Mother, Father, and Creator. Psalm 139 reminds us that God’s knowledge of us is complete, even as we cannot possibly presume to know God in the same way.
Sadly, some of the most beautiful and humbling verses of this psalm are among those omitted today in between verse 5 and verse 13, and I think they make a vital point, so I want to include them here:
6 Where can I go then from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you were there;
If I make the grave my bed, you were there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me
And your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me,
And the lights around the turn to night,”
11 Darkness is not dark to you;
The night is as bright as the day;
Darkness and light to you are both alike.
These omitted verses make a valuable point about human nature. We want to believe that we can bury our flaws and our faults, our sins and trespasses, so deep they can never be found. When we find out how deeply we are known by the One who loves us, our response may be to flee. It’s often that way. We feel the blessing of God’s presence with us, and know that God is “our portion and our cup.” We radiate with that blessing. But the minute we think we have God all figured out– that’s when we get off track. Deep down, we think God is like us, and that God can only love the best versions of ourselves.Yet the love we have from God is so much more, for we are known and loved despite ourselves.
The second we think we can hide from God, we are lying to ourselves. God is with us always—not just in good times, and certainly not just in bad times. And God is not only with us, but God KNOWS us. In fact, some form of the word “know” is used four times in the first five verses of Psalm 139, if you count the word “knowledge,”- and I do. Three times we are told that God knows us intimately—and the knowledge of that simply boggles the mind of the psalmist. In the last part of the psalm that we read today, we are reminded that God not only knows us, but has made us, each and every one, which implies an even more intimate level of knowing.
God knows us, and since most of us can be honest with ourselves, that also means that God knows all of our flaws. If you look back at the story of Adam and Eve, you may remember that once they really knew THEMSELVES to be naked, their first impulse was to hide from God, although the assumption is that they had been walking around talking to God in their altogether all the while before their disobedience. Yet it was not their disobedience that made them want to hide—they had already justified that to themselves. It was their nakedness before God that made them dive into the bushes when they heard God coming.
As the Episcopal Church is forced by recent tragic events in Maryland to confront our own nakedness, and some feel compelled to point out the nakedness of the person responsible for the tragedy, I see this psalm being sent to us at this time as a true sign of God’s grace. God KNOWS us—and yet loves and treasures us anyway. Even when part of what makes us who we are includes our anger, our spite, our recklessness, and the very real damage we inflict upon others. Even then, when the thought of that love is overwhelming, and we just “know” in our hearts that we don’t deserve it, that love nonetheless remains. God is with us throughout our fallible, messy lives. God’s love penetrates whatever veils we try to draw around our present or around our past. We sometimes pray, “God have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Yet, the promise is there within those words: God DOES have mercy on us, sinners as we all are, because we are known and loved with a fierce, unending love that is beyond our imagination.
We are all naked before God. Yet God is with us, loving us, knowing us in all our victories as well as in our darkest, meanest actions. God is with us, loving us, from our first breath to our last. God’s hand is upon us, pressing upon us and at the same time bearing us up with a love that cannot be denied, not even by sin or by death.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image: “Polarlicht 2” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons