“Who We Are Matters”

A sermon on Psalm 139 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 7/10/22, introducing our summer “We Are” series about identity and community. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video. I changed a few names in this manuscript for privacy.

Two weeks ago at our Congregational Meeting, the Racial Righteousness Journey Leadership Team shared their Report and Recommendations, the result of many months of work and research and interviews and training and prayer. If you’re new to our church or unfamiliar with the context, the RRJLT is a team we commissioned in the summer of 2020 in order to help chart a course for our congregation in our racial righteousness journey.

If you haven’t done so yet, I urge you to make time to read that report and to reflect on it. Each and every one of us has a crucial role to play in LaSalle’s future. And the future feels particularly unforeseeable right now, doesn’t it? Many of us are looking out at a public and political landscape that feels almost unrecognizable to us. We’re wondering where we fit and what we’re supposed to do, both as individuals and as a church that is committed to God’s work on the ground.

Today we’re starting our summer worship series, and the title is easy to remember: “We Are.” This sermon series is one of the ways we’re going to participate in our racial righteousness journey together. Over the next two months, we’ll start by exploring who we are as individuals—who you are. And then we’ll explore how all these distinct, diverse individuals live together in community.

So today, we begin by asking: Who are you? How do you know who you are? 

I want to ask that question in conversation with Psalm 139, one of my favorite psalms. The translation you heard today may have sounded unfamiliar. It’s a translation written by Robert Alter, a scholar on Hebrew who specializes in literary and linguistic analysis of the Old Testament. I love the way his translations use provocative and unexpected phrasings. There’s some ambiguity about whether this is a psalm written by King David or simply written in the tradition of David as a kind of tribute to him, so let’s just refer to the author as “the poet.”

Psalm 139 is best known for v. 14, a verse typically translated along the lines of, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s a beautiful verse for occasions like the baby dedication we celebrated today, trying to put words to the miracle of new life, the way that a baby like Claire evokes wonder and awe.

Before we get to v. 14, there’s a long, striking series of statements about just how far the presence and awareness of God reaches. If you read through it a few times, you start to notice that this is a psalm about knowing

Listen to how often the psalm uses the verb “know”:

  • LORD, You searched me and You know.
  • It is You Who know when I sit and when I rise.
  • There is no word on my tongue but that You, O LORD wholly know it.
  • Wondrous are Your acts, and my being deeply knows it.
  • Search me, God, and know my heart.

So much of the emotional tone and impact of this psalm depends on the way you hear that word “know.” There are a lot of different ways that you can know a person.

One of the ways of knowing is all about control and manipulation. A recent report on kids and technology in the Washington Post found that “more than two-thirds of the 1,000 most popular iPhone apps likely to be used by children collect and send their personal information out to the advertising industry.” On Android it’s 79% of apps. The result of this is that “by the time a child reaches [the age of] 13, online advertising firms hold an average of 72 million data points about them.” 

72 million data points. That’s little bits of information like when a kid opens any given app, where they are when they use it, what sort of device they use, and on and on. And 72 million is the average for kids at age 13—we can only begin to imagine how many data points exist for each of us adults.

I couldn’t help but imagine a contemporary version of Psalm 139, written to the Big Tech companies like Google and Apple. It might sound something like this:

You have searched me, and you know me.
You know how early I check my notifications and how late I stay up scrolling Tiktok.
You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways, even if I turn off location services, because you can approximate my location via public Wi-Fi networks.
Before a word is completely typed into the search bar, you predict it accurately.
Such knowledge is terrifying for me, and honestly too complicated for me to understand, so I try not to think about it.

All the data that these tech companies and advertising firms have about us is a form of knowing, right? With all that data they can paint a pretty accurate picture of you. They know the sort of things that you like and dislike. They know what times of day you are most vulnerable and persuadable. And all that data about you is used in the service of advertising—in other words, it’s all used in the service of convincing you about what to buy, or what to read, or whom to vote for, or whom to be afraid of.

There is a form of knowing that is all about control. And we can leave Big Tech out of it. Whether it was a partner who manipulated you and didn’t respect your boundaries, or a friend who used intimate knowledge about you to hurt you, we all have an idea of what it feels like when someone or something only wants to understand us so they can gain power over us.

We can believe that about God, too. When I was a teenager, Psalm 139 sounded a little menacing to me. I read it and felt afraid, as if God was lurking around every corner, so that as soon as I made a mistake or fell into sin, God would be ready to catch me in the act and punish me. There was no escape! God was like a strict manager, making sure I followed every single company policy, adding demerits to my record every time I didn’t. Maybe you learned those things about God, too.

I don’t think that’s the kind of world God created. Here at LaSalle we have a huge stained glass window of Jesus in the back of our sanctuary, looking down at us every time we gather together. Jesus is the head of this church, and we do everything we can to draw our attention to Jesus, because he shows us who God is. He shows us the kind of things God is about. If you spend any time reading the gospels, you learn that Jesus didn’t come here in order to assert control. Jesus shared meals with people, he healed people, he had long conversations with religious authorities and social outcasts—in other words, he got to know people. When the people had enough of him, they decided to kill him.

If ever there was a time for Jesus to assert the power and control that belonged to him, it would have been during that sequence of events that led to his death. But he let himself be killed. The book of Philippians famously says Jesus “humbled himself to death.” And then he came back to life. In the story of his death and resurrection, it’s as if Jesus, back there on our window, looks at all of humanity and asks: “Do you really think that’s how all this works? Do you really think that all of this is a game of domination and control? Do you really think that’s the kind of world I created?”

Jesus could have retaliated against the people for the violence they committed against him. Sure, Jesus could declare victory that way, but it would have reinforced the way they thought the universe worked, a constant grab for power. No, instead Jesus broke the rules of their game, surrendering himself to death as a testament to the fact that the fundamental movement of the universe is not power or control. The fundamental movement of the universe is love. Jesus gave up control because Jesus embraced love, and he showed us the kind of world we actually live in.

There is a kind of knowing that is all about control. But there is also a kind of knowing that is all about love. You can read Psalm 139 through the eyes of control: God never stops watching me because God wants to know exactly when I slip up so that God can catch me in the act. But you can also read this psalm through the eyes of love. This is going to sound glib, but I’m being as serious as I can: Maybe the reason God is so persistent – so present – in this psalm is that God really likes spending time with me.

Surprisingly enough, the word “love” never actually appears in Psalm 139. But all the signs are there. Verse 5 imagines God’s hand upon the poet; the version we heard earlier translates this verse as, “You set Your palm upon me,” and the translator comments that the image suggests a potter firmly pressing her palm into unformed clay. Verse 13 describes the delicate, careful care with which God knit the poet together in their mother’s womb. All the crafters in the room know just how much love goes into a knitted scarf or a handmade ceramic bowl.

There is a kind of knowing that is all about love. We are fully known by God, and I want to try and convince you that is good news, because God’s knowing is a manifestation of God’s loving. God is the close friend who happened to be sitting next to you when your phone rang with bad news and you totally fell apart. God was the beloved grandmother who gathered you into her arms when you fell, and for a moment the world seemed a little safer.

Human examples can only get us so far, because we love each other imperfectly. I think some of us have only begun to understand what it means that God’s steady love for us does not depend on what we do or don’t do on any given day. God’s love is based on a kind of mathematics that is totally foreign to us.

If there are parts of your life that you can’t bring yourself to acknowledge or share with anyone else, well, God’s loving gaze reaches those places, too. I think that’s what the poet means in v. 12 when they say, “The darkness is as light to you.” We have all these categories of private and public, of shameful and proud, of secret and shared. We construct those categories to help us get through the day. But those categories don’t really affect the perception of this loving presence that surrounds us and sees right through them.

Well, what does this tell us about who we are? I believe that who we are is gradually revealed to us through being known by a God who loves us. By knowing you, God gradually reveals who you are. Who you are is unfolding, right now, in real-time.

What does that mean? It means that each of us has at least 72 million data points about our lives—where we come from, what we look like, everything that’s ever been done to us, every mistake we’ve ever made—and we can interpret those 72 million data points into a lot of different stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we fit into the world. Some of the stories we tell about ourselves are generous and honest. Some of the stories we tell about ourselves are deceptive, or cynical, or unloving.

All along the way, we have also been held in the gaze of a God who loves us and knows us. Who shaped us from behind and in front. Who is familiar with all our ways. And the more we surrender all those facts about our lives—what we’ve learned, what we regret, the people we hate or maybe just can’t stand—the more God continues the work of creating, keeps clicking those knitting needles, keeps gently pressing a palm into the clay. Out of all those little pieces of our lives, God is redeeming all of it, revealing something beautiful, something that is connected to all of God’s creative purposes in the world. God is leading us on the road to life.

Life. That’s where the psalmist leaves things. Verses 23 and 24: 

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Here the poet seems pretty confident that if God searches their heart, God won’t find anything wicked. Most days I am not nearly so confident that my heart is so pure. But I can make the same invitation to God—”Search me”—because no matter what God finds, God is holding me in love and leading me in the way of life. That doesn’t mean that my sin is inconsequential; I don’t want to give the impression that God is an apathetic observer. I think God hurts with you when someone else hurts you, and I think God grieves when we do wrong, whether it’s wrong against ourselves or someone else.

Actually, you might have noticed that I haven’t really addressed vv. 19-22. That’s the part where the poet starts to talk about their enemies, and in this case, the poet portrays their enemies as people who hate God, those who use the name of God to carry out their own evil schemes. And the poet is extremely clear in their request: “Oh that you would kill the wicked, O God.” It’s a bit of a tonal shift from the kind of warm, gentle wonder that fills the rest of the psalm, right?

There are a few ways to understand this sudden turn. One understanding is that the poet is so in love with God that they feel a sort of personal betrayal toward those who oppose God or use God’s name for their evil schemes. When you see people do things that you perceive as monstrous and they do them in the name of Jesus, it tends to provoke a kind of righteous anger. 

Other people describe this passage as a kind of emotional excess—the kind of prayer that God is not likely to answer, but at least it does show us that it’s okay—even good—for us to say anything and everything we feel to God, not holding anything back, leaving the final authority in God’s hands. After all, even if you are praying for violence against your enemies, ultimately you are leaving their fate in God’s hands.

But the more I read this psalm, the more I wonder whether this turn—this sudden violent turn against the poet’s enemies—I wonder if it represents a kind of failure to perceive them as fearfully and wonderfully made, too. I find the poet’s perspective incredibly relatable here, and because I’m reading someone else’s words, it’s easier for me to notice what strikes me as an inconsistency in their perspective. I wonder if this is the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he eventually said, “Listen, I know that what makes most sense is for you to hate your enemies, but I am here to tell you that if you want to be part of what God is doing, then you’re gonna need to love them instead.” 

The only remedy to the wickedness in my heart is the firm, persistent, loving work of God. We have a big window in the back of the sanctuary to remind us that God doesn’t play our games of power and control. The fundamental movement of the universe is love.

By knowing us, God gradually reveals to us who we are. But it’s never only about me, because the more I allow God to unfold who I am by knowing me, the easier it becomes for me to receive who you are, too. Life together is no longer a competition about making sure I have the right opinions in order to protect my reputation. It’s not about projecting all my own expectations and biases onto you in order to make sure I know exactly where I fit. Instead life together is a messy and sometimes chaotic movement of love, in which understanding myself enables me to receive who you are with empathy and humility. When I believe that I am known and loved by God, I begin to extend that same hospitality to others. 

This has some big implications for how we do life together as a community, particularly as we continue this racial righteousness journey together. I think that’s a lot of what we mean when we say that LaSalle is a place where you can “grow into the person God is calling you to be.” We don’t mean that this sanctuary space has that power, or that your membership status has that power. We mean that doing life together actually helps each of us become who we are. We are each an essential part of each other’s gradual process of becoming. Whenever you participate in the life of this community, whenever you get to know someone else by eating together or serving together or praying together, you become a part of who they are becoming. You become an expression of the love that is shaping them.

Just a few minutes ago in our baby dedication liturgy, we made a commitment to Kate and Michael. Together, we said, “We will surround Claire as a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in service to others. We will pray that Claire may become a true disciple of Jesus, walking in the way of life.” What an incredible gift to a child. What an amazing opportunity to grow up in a community of love and forgiveness. That’s a serious commitment for each of us. As my 72 million data points brush up against your 72 million data points, we are going to need to practice a lot of that love and forgiveness. 

Who Claire is will gradually be revealed. It is going to unfold over time in the hands of a God who loves her, and in the presence of a community who walks with her.

Who we are matters. Whatever experiences you bring, whatever hurts you carry that still need healing, whatever parts of your life you are struggling to reconcile into the full image of who you are—this community of love and forgiveness is here for you, too. We are each an essential part of each other’s gradual process of becoming. Together, we are learning how to walk in the way of life. That is who we are.

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