(A sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18C — September 5, 2010 — Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18)
After a labor that you might call textbook, in that it lasted exactly the longest times listed for each part of labor in the instructional books and articles I read, I gave birth to my first child. Because I was adopted as an infant, he was the first biological relative I would ever see. And when the nurse wrapped him in a little blanket and put him in my arms, he looked directly into my eyes, and I felt we had known each other forever.
In the days that followed, I would feed him and bathe him and count every finger and toe more than once, marvel at his ears and his nose and every oncoming cowlick on his little head, in awe that he had arrived whole and, to his mother’s eyes, beautiful in every way.
In our reading today, the Psalmist gives us a picture of God knowing us not only broadly, but particularly. God, Creator of all that is, not only takes an interest in the mountaintops and in the ocean deeps, but in the very knitting together of our lives, the formation of our essential selves. Like a watchful parent, a mother with eyes in the back of her head, God knows where we’ve been and where we are going. Like a wise parent, a father who takes the time to pay attention, God knows what’s worrying us before we can find a way to put it into words. We are searched and known.
My youngest child starts her sophomore year of high school on Tuesday, and one of the subjects she will undertake is Geometry. It’s a true story that my mother went to three high schools in her sophomore year. It was the beginning of World War II, and the family followed my grandfather, who was in the Marine Corps. My mother told me how she had to read “Ivanhoe” three times –and yes, she really read it each time – but even that level of commitment could never make Geometry understandable to her. The three teachers all presented it differently, and it never made sense to her.
I had no such excuse for my struggles with proofs. My mind simply works differently, and I did not care. Why take the time to illustrate the steps along the way when the conclusion is obvious?
Scientists and psychologists offer reasons why there is no God, or rather why there is no need for God, or even why it’s a function of our brain chemistry to believe in something that makes us want to be better people. They are treating the experience of the divine much like geometry, a proof to be developed or rejected. I think they miss the wonder that all our pieces ever come together just right when there are so many things that could go wrong. They could use a bit of the awe we hear in the psalm:
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. (Psalm 139:6, NRSV)
My mother, the frustrated Geometry student, had a very different first experience of holding her first child, who happened to be me. Instead of waiting nine months, being kicked and prodded from the inside, and going through a process of delivering me into the world, she met me fully formed. Instead of going to prenatal appointments, she filled out paperwork with my father and cleaned the house from top to bottom to be prepared for home studies. Instead of receiving me from the arms of a nurse, she received me from the arms of a social worker. They met on the waterfront, because it was the practice of the Adoption office to meet and hand off the baby at a remote and neutral location.
The first thing she did was take me to the pediatrician, and there the process started, unwrapping the baby, counting the fingers and toes, searching to be sure there were no obvious flaws, seeking proof I had all the right pieces.
God may seem rather far away for the counting of fingers and toes; it’s not the outward appearance that concerns God. It’s the inward parts, the frame of mind and the tendencies of the heart that make us who we are. Long before the pediatrician gave me a passing grade, God knew and loved me. For many years I looked at the brief period of time before my parents received me as a void in my life, but I now believe I was wrong about that. I may not know the details of who took care of me or where I slept. I will never know those things. But I know that the God of Love and Goodness did not lose track of me. God takes a passionate, particular interest in our condition.
And that may be worrisome! I remember after my mother died someone saying I should take comfort in having her watch over me, and I also remember evaluating that suggestion rather literally and deciding it did not please me. Like a child who would just as soon not have her mama know what she is doing in the backyard right this minute, we may feel unnerved by God’s attention to us. We may work hard at shrugging off the idea of God as a helicopter traffic reporter, a Cosmic Eye in the Sky looking down at us.
And I really don’t believe it works that way. God isn’t keeping score of the yellow lights we passed through at the last possible moment, at least not in order to punish us for squeezing the metaphorical lemon.
God has taken the trouble to search us and know us out of love. We know this with certainty because God went beyond trouble and took the risk of coming among us in human form as Jesus. There could be no greater love than to live in our skin and understand us so completely. God went beyond knitting us together and had the experience of *being* knit together, of being formed and born and grown into adulthood, of being loved and despised and accepted and rejected and hailed and killed.
God did all this to show us how much we are loved, and to know us even better.
We’re just starting to get to know each other, you and I. My ways are not familiar to you, and yours are not to me. I will share my stories with you, and I am eager to listen to yours. I will try to ask the searching questions that will help me to know you better. Along the way I hope we will not simply get to know each other but that all of us will get to know God better. The God who came to live as one of us also wants to be searched and known, in prayer and service and song and at the Table where we will gather today.
May we seek our God together, the One who is always with us. Amen.
("Cradle" by Berthe Morisot was found on the Vanderbilt Lectionary website. Many thanks for this great resource.)