Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sermon: "God Knows"

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, United Church of Christ
January 18, 2015 – Second Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18;  John 1:43-51

“God Knows”

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 are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

These words from Psalm 139 are comforting in many ways.
To know that God knows our thoughts and feelings without us having to find the words to express them.
To know that God knows our prayers without our having to speak them.
To know that God knows our wants and desires and longings even if no other human being has the patience or the willingness to acknowledge them or fulfill them.

This is the omnipresent and omniscient God that we believe watches over us as children and guides us along the right path as adults.
Even if no human being can truly know our struggles or pain.
God knows.
Even if we haven’t yet figured out our life purpose or path.
God knows.
Even if we have yet to reveal our remorse over wrongs we have done.
God knows.

This understanding of God who is in all places and knows all things is comforting in many ways… can also be unnerving and discomforting.

There’s something unsettling about knowing we’re being watched at all times.
To have no thought that is completely private and no action that has not been recorded in some heavenly ledger next to our name.

We need only look at the verses of Psalm 139 that were not included in our lectionary reading this morning to know that we are not alone in wanting to put a little distance between ourselves and God at times.

In verses 7-12 the Psalmist writes:
Oh Lord, where can I go from your spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I descend to Sheol, you are there.
If I settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there…your right hand shall hold me fast.
Even the darkness cannot conceal me, for night is as bright as the day to you.

We’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve wanted to hide from God.

When I was seven years old I took a pocket watch from my older sister’s bedroom. I found it at the bottom of a dresser drawer where she kept a bunch of old trinkets and forgotten toys. It was made of plastic and wasn’t even real, but I knew it was wrong to take it. God had clearly commanded “Thou Shalt not Steal” but my sister was away at college and she hadn’t looked at anything in that drawer in years.  She would never miss it.
My mother saw me playing with the watch and she asked me where I got it.
I told her a friend of mine had given it to me.
That was a big fat lie. Now I had two strikes against me.
I couldn’t sleep at all that night.
I was terrified of being found out and revealed as the thief and liar that I was – so the next morning I took the toy watch and threw it into the overgrown hedges on the side of our house.
Because you know THAT would make everything right.

My mother never asked about the watch again and my sister never noticed that it was gone.   But I knew that watch was in those hedges, and for years to come every time my father got out his hedge trimmer a huge pit would form in my stomach and I would cringe with guilt over my yet undiscovered and un-admitted theft.
The reality is, if the toy watch had been found no one would have known how it got there or even cared…. but I knew….and I knew that God knew.

Having a God that can see into the deepest recesses of our hearts can be unsettling when we’re trying to conceal something, or convince ourselves that some truth that we can’t accept will just go away if we bury it deep enough.

But God knows all of our idiosyncrasies, flaws, and missteps.
The major ones and the minor ones.
God knows that we look for loopholes to get out of paying taxes, that we tell the dentist that we floss more often than we actually do, and that we only vacuum under the couch when we know company is coming.
God also knows that we didn’t keep that promise that we swore we would keep, that we placed blame on someone else rather than take it on ourselves, that we hurt someone by withholding our grace, our mercy, or our love.

God knows the dreams we’ve been harboring,
the desires, wants and wishes that we’re too afraid to share.
And God knows when we chastise ourselves in our own hearts because we think we’re too weak, too worthless, or too far-gone to be saved.

It is unsettling to have a Creator who knows us so deeply and so completely.
But it is also comforting.
Because this is a Creator who loves us and holds us tightly in a merciful embrace despite all that we’ve done or not done.
This is a Creator who knits us together in our mother’s womb, and declares us to be intricately and wonderfully made.
This is a Creator whose eyes behold our unformed substance and sees the potential that we hold within.

When Jesus went to Galilee and spotted Nathanael sitting under a tree, he immediately pronounced him to be a righteous man without deceit.
Nathanael seemed surprised – that this man whom he had never met had seen so deeply into his heart.
Perhaps Nathanael was so taken aback because he would never make such a claim about himself.
He was sitting under a tree in the middle of the day.
Was he just resting or was he avoiding work that he should have been doing?
He was also a skeptic and brazenly prejudiced in his views.
When Philip told him he had found the Messiah in Jesus, Joseph’s son from Nazareth, Nathanael replied, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Sarcasm is not a trait we expect Jesus would value when it came to choosing his disciples.

But Nathanael knew that Jesus had seen right through his well-crafted facade – surely only someone who harbored a deep relationship with God would have the power to do that.

Nathanael became a disciple right there on the spot.
And Jesus told him he would see great things because of it.

As one of Jesus’ first followers, Nathanael took a huge risk in committing his life to this man whom he had just met.
It would have been so much easier to stay seated under that tree passing judgment on the world around him without actually engaging in the change that he wished to see.
Instead Nathanael chose to let go of the lie that he was living and live the truth that Jesus had seen in his heart.

As followers of Christ, we are called to do the same.
But living our truth is THE hardest thing we will ever do.

When I was 23-years-old I decided that it was time to let go of a lie that I had been living for far too long.
It had nothing to do with the stolen pocket watch or the childish fib I had told to cover it up.
It had everything to do with who I was and my own acceptance that in God’s eyes I was wonderfully made, exactly the way God intended for me to be.

No matter what age you are, saying the words “I’m gay” to a parent or a sibling or a trusted friend is never easy.
It’s one of those crescendo moments where you build up enough courage to speak a truth that you know could have life altering ramifications for everyone involved.
Once you speak it, there’s often an agonizing pause where your words are left hanging there in the air between you and the person you’ve told while you search their eyes for the longed for or feared response.

God has a way of calling us into these moments of vulnerability.
Those moments where we decide the truth we’re holding inside is more powerful and more precious than the fa├žade we show to the world.

Speaking the truth can be liberating because it allows us to divert the energy we had been using to maintain the lie to more productive and life affirming ways of engaging the world.

Anyone who has ever had the courage to say the words, “I’m an alcoholic”  “I’m an addict” or “I’ve been unfaithful” knows what it means to be liberated.

But regardless as to whether the “truth” we’re revealing is an affirmation of our God-given identity or the admission that we’re struggling with something that too big for us to handle on our own, the response we receive from those we love can often lift us up into the light or push us back into the darkness that we’ve tried to escape.
In fairness, being on the receiving end of a revealed truth is often just as hard as being the one who felt compelled to speak it.
Few of us are ever fully prepared to know how to respond to a truth that we struggle to comprehend or understand.

Thankfully, the response we receive from God is always the same:
You are intricately and wonderfully made.  
And you are loved regardless of who you are or what you have done.

Jesus spoke God’s truth with a capitol T – we are to be the embodiment of God’s love, compassion, and grace in the world - and the truth that we’re called to speak for ourselves should be a reflection of that larger truth even if it means moving against the grain of the culture in which we live.

Tomorrow we observe the birthday of a man who chose to speak a truth many longed to hear, rather than preserve the carefully constructed lies of the culture in which he lived.
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Riverside Church in NYC before a room filled with members of a group called Clergy and Laity Concerned about the Vietnam War.
These are his words:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but… one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed.
True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will…say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, …of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.

These words of Martin Luther King Jr. spoken during the early years of the Vietnam War were radical for his time and they’re radical for our time. Exactly one year after King spoke these words he was killed, because the truth he spoke ignited fear and hatred in the hearts of those who benefited from the systems he wished to dismantle.

The truth that we have to speak about ourselves may not get us killed, but we live in a world where women are still stoned for committing adultery, where transgender teens choose suicide rather than live with the pain of judgment and rejection, where gay men are thrown off rooftops to their death by religious extremists, and men, women, and children with dark skin are followed, questioned, and assumed to be looking for trouble on a daily basis, and if they dare speak out, push back, or disrespect the authority of those in power the use of deadly force is thought to be justified and reasonable.

We live in a world where we fear the truth that others have to speak because in hearing their truth we are often implicated for what we have done or not done in the face of another’s pain.

I don’t know about you, but I have no desire to live in that world.
I long to live in the world that Jesus envisioned we would build with God’s help.
The world where our thoughts, words, and actions are ruled by love and grace rather than fear and ignorance.

God knows if we are even capable of creating and sustaining such a world.
God know if this Christian faith is nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream that is destined to fail.
But God also knows that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying.

Live the good news.
Live the truth that God calls you to live.
Believe that God created you to do nothing less.

Thanks be to God.