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Searched and Known

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Sep 08

The Sixteen Sunday After Pentecost- Regathering Sunday

Text: Psalm 139

Do you know those desert island lists?  If you were stuck on a deserted island, and could only bring 5 books, or 5 albums or 5 photos, which would they be? When it comes to a category scripture or poetry writ large, Psalm 139 would be at our near the top of my list.

O God, you have searched me and known me. 

For centuries, this Psalm has been a favorite of those with a desire in their hearts for an intimate and inward connection with God. Its been beloved by those who take comfort and assurance in reminders that God is present to us, in every moment and in every place.  This psalm has become a template for the spiritual life of Jews and Christian alike, and has inspired poets theologians and philosophers to wrestle with the mysterious dynamics of what it means to know and be known by God, to find and be found by God.  There is an inherent confidence and assurance, even a subtle gladness, in its words.  Unlike so many other biblical texts, this psalm can often find an instant resonance in the hearts of its hearers.  And yet part of what makes it so compelling is that it speaks of a complete and inescapable exposure of our whole lives, inside and out!  It underscores that quintessentially human desire not only for authentic relationship but with it that yearning we all feel to be fully known, fully accepted in a relationship that will withstand the best and worst of our ourselves! The thought of it conjures joy and gladness, but when we really think about it, it may leave us feeling a bit uneasy and unnerved as well.

To be fully known?  Really?  Everything we’ve ever thought, said or done, all out in the open, at least within the context of our relationship with God?  Forget for a moment about Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, the NSA and web surveillance, Psalm 139 seems to be telling us that such notions of our privacy or lack thereof are meaningless to God.  Even before a word is on our tongue, God knows it!   Can we even begin to imagine this kind of inescapable scrutiny and are we sure it’s a good thing?

I don’t know who said it first, the notion that we are our secrets, but it is in many ways true.  We are the ‘dark’ ones, like the fact that I love food way too much, especially cheese and bbq and beer, though I wish I could keep that more a secret!  We are the darker ones, about which I’m not telling you.  Or the just plain deep ones -- those doubts about ourselves or about others, especially those closest to us, or even doubts about God.  Let’s face it, we’ve all got ‘em, do we not?  But there’s also the glad secrets, the inside jokes, the joyfully withheld surprise, those moments we choose not to reveal simply because they are too precious for words, or because they might sacrifice someone else’s trust were we to share them.  You’ve got your examples and I’ve got mine.  

Frederick Beuchner puts its well when he says that secrets “are the essence of what makes us ourselves. They are the rich loam out of which, for better or worse, grow the selves by which the world knows us. If we are ever to be free and whole, we must be free from their darkness and have their spell over us broken. If we are ever to see each other as we fully are, we must see by their light.”Imagine a church!  Imagine a household of faith, of love and grace that was bathed in that kind of light!  Imagine what a beacon of healing and love we could be for our families, for our community, for our world in which we are so often made to live in the shadows.

 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not to dark to you, O God, the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

The host of NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross, captures this tension of wanting and worrying about being known when she talks about her work as a journalist.  “Anyone who agrees to be interviewed must decide where to draw the line between what is public and what is private. But the line can shift, depending on who is asking the questions. What puts someone on guard isn't necessarily the fear of being 'found out.' It sometimes is just the fear of being misunderstood.”   And that’s just it, just the tension we may feel when reading this!  Rest assured, Psalm 139 is not about being found out!  Rather, its about being found!  Its being found and known and understood in all our wonder and complexity, through our most noble deeds and our most shameful ones, through our gifts and our successes and through our flaws and our flops! For most of us, the experience of being misunderstood, and for that matter of being unseen, unheard and unknown, can be among the greatest and most dehumanizing of pains, especially if we grew up in settings where this was too often the case.

The spirituals speak of this experience on the scale of an entire people.  When I googled “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” one of the first hits was a Youtube video of a 1962 performance of Louis Armstrong playing that jazz standard on his coronet and singing. Nancy and I were down in New Orleans two weeks ago where one can’t miss the statues and tributes to the Louis Armstrong.  And here he was on my screen, belting it out.  I’ll spare you a sung version but check out these lyrics:   

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Oh, nobody knows my sorrow.

 I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down,

sometimes I’m almost to the ground.  

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

Nobody knows but Jesus.

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen.  

Glory, Hallelujah. 


The most miraculous thing about the video is that Louis sings it with a smile, a smile of deep consolation.  I believe he knew what the psalmist meant. 

And of course, when it comes being found and understood, it totally depends on who is doing the asking.  Consider who it is in the Psalm. As Jeremy Troxler has said, and he here references some of the other passages that our teens read, “This is the God for whom there are no anonymous sheep, to whom nobody is a write-off, for whom no one is lost in the crowd. The personal God who loves the number one: one lost sheep, one missing coin, one sinner lost and found.”  He goes on to say, “We don’t want anyone, even God, to know everything about us, no matter how much we say otherwise.” That’s part of the reason, he says, why we rejected Jesus. He says we just “couldn’t stand the suffocating intimacy of our salvation.”  That line alone is worth a whole sermon but the point is well taken, that these dynamics can get all the more real when we consider this divine knowing and being known in human form.  The very power of the Christ’s incarnation is that this searching and all knowing and all forgiving love is and could yet be as real as the person sitting next to you, as real as a first century Palestinian Jew.   Imagine sitting for a moment next to that light!  No more darkness in which to hide but no more darkness to fear as well, for even the darkness is not dark to God! 

I can’t explain how God does this, how God knows our every thought and deed, or even the great consolation in trusting and knowing in my gut that these lines are true.  The assurance is expressed with such confidence that is seems to speak to the very fabric of reality.  The great 20th century philosopher Paul Tillich is helpful here when he writes:  “The most intimate motions within the depths of our souls are not completely our own. For they belong also to our friends, to mankind, to the universe, and to the Ground of all being, the aim of our life. Nothing can be hidden ultimately. It is always reflected in the mirror in which nothing can be concealed. Does anybody really believe that his most secret thoughts and desires are not manifest in the whole of being, or that the events within the darkness of his subconscious or in the isolation of his consciousness do no produce eternal repercussions? Does anybody really believe that he can escape from the responsibility for what he has done and thought in secret?”  Powerful words, something to chew on long after our lunch today.  But it gets better. Tillich goes on to write:  “Omniscience,” that is the claim that God is all knowing, “means that our mystery is manifest.”  “Omnipresence”, that claim that God is in all places at all times, “means that our privacy is public. The center of our whole being is involved in the center of all being; and the center of all being rests in the center of our being.”  Leave it to one of the greatest theological minds of the past century to turn those incredible thoughts and phrases. Unlike everywhere else in our lives, when it comes to our relationship with God, our mystery is manifest; our privacy is public!  Are you feeling sweet relief or abject terror at the thought of all this?  Or maybe an enthralling and paradoxical combination of joy and fear?  Just remember who is doing the asking. The God that is Love itself!  God you have searched me and known and loved me still!   

A further image for this depth of intimacy comes out of a different translation for the word “searched.” In Hebrew, "searched" can also mean "to dig." As in, God you have dug into me and you know me, or even better, “God, you know me and you dig me!”   You dig me, as in you break up the ground of my being and you excavate my soul!  Whoa.  Or, if we take the word dig more lightly and informally, it can also mean, God, you dig me, as in you like me, you appreciate me, you understand me, you get me.  Can you dig it?

If all this talk of intimate relationship is still making your uncomfortable, consider finally, verse 2 of Psalm 139, where we’re offered a less intimate image, at least to our modern ears.  There we are told that God is acquainted with all our ways.  Now that may feel a little less invasive!  Maybe its a better fit for where some of our personal connections with God are.  Maybe this is your first time in church ever.  If you are thinking “but me and God, we’re just barely getting to know each other. Slow down already,”  I say “fair enough”.  That may well be the reality from your point of view.  But the psalmist is trying to capture God’s point of view as well, and he’s making the claim the relationship is already fully formed, knit together and intricately woven out of a love for us that cannot help but be all consuming, all present, all knowing and all loving!  Fortunately, the psalm is also a testimony to God’s patience.  God has been searching for us since the beginning of time, and will continue to do so to the end!       

If we haven’t yet had some experience that has plunged us into an awareness of the utter intimacy by which God knows and loves us, then this language of acquaintance may well be a better fit and may for a time allow us to hang onto some kind of cordial distance between us and God. Yet even this frame may not last especially if you read and please take with you the poem by Howard Thurman in your hands.  Psalm 139 was a favorite of Thurman’s, so much so that he wrote a poem for every line in it, including verse 2.   I trust you’ll find his language suggestive of far more than mere acquaintance. And yet it’s a different angle, another way of holding this remarkable passage and drawing it near to your hearts, and with it maybe even letting God draw near to you, and know you. 

Whether we take in Psalm 139 all at once, or over a lifetime, what at a template for us on this Regathering Sunday!  For here, at church in our life together, what is this homecoming Sunday if not a celebration of the joy of being known, that exquisite sense of being welcomed and encourage and drawn out simply because you are!  Because you exist, because we are all children of God fearfully and wonderfully made, we can all have a taste of this gift that is ours to share.  I may not know you, you may not him, she may not know her, but God knows us all, counts us all as if were the only one, welcomes us all into this household of grace, invites us to a feast of love. Even more importantly, God invites to so know and be known by one another, to love and be loved by one another, to seek and be found by one another.  For here, God finds us and know us better than we know ourselves.  And please do stay after church, enjoy a free lunch, come and get to know one and be known by one another better, find out about the opportunities and upcoming events, like our upcoming Fall retreat in October, whose theme will allow us time alone and . “Revealing our Life Together”.

O Lord, you have searched us and known us. You are acquainted with all our ways. Can you dig it?  Can you let it dig you?  

Where can we go from your spirit? Where can we flee from your presence? The answer is nowhere, thank you, God!

Then, search us now, God, find us where we are, accept us as we are, know our hearts. Tell us, please, if we don’t already now, what are those wonderful and what are those fearful parts within us.  Invite us to participate in such bracing and embracing love for each other and for our world and lead us in the way everlasting.  Amen.


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