READINGS: Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 Genesis
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Think back on a time in your life when you had some concern, some problem that was weighing you down, but you were afraid to share it with anyone for fear that, if they knew the truth about you, they would be disgusted and turn away.
Remember how you finally swallowed your fears and told someone your secret only to discover that, not only did they not reject you, but that they may have had similar feelings or done similar things themselves. Remember the closeness you felt with that person at that moment. It's almost as if you were touching your hearts or your souls together.
At a moment like that, it's almost as if you are standing on holy ground. And, in essence, you are, because acceptance at that depth can only come from God, who is both the Creator and embodiment of love.
That's what the 139th Psalm is all about. It describes God as being the one who sees behind all the walls and masks we regularly put up to shield ourselves from one another.
God knows all of our faults and our failings. We can't con God nor can we persuade God to look away during our embarrassing moments. Therefore, God sees us at our best and our worst - and yet God never rejects us. Instead, God pursues us like a starry-eyed lover even when we try to hide from God.
That's not the only way to read this psalm. One person I read thinks of this as the "paranoia psalm," because it talks about how there is no way to escape from God.
But the Psalmist is really reflecting on what a comfort it is to know that no matter what your circumstances may be at any given time - regardless of whether it is your own bad choices that led to those circumstances or not - you can't possibly move beyond God's love and acceptance.
But how many of us are stuck at the level of the "paranoia psalm." At that level, we are only too aware of our capacity for sin and so we do our best to hide our sins and ourselves from God, even though our attempts to do that will always be unsuccessful. Francis Thompson talks about that human tendency in his poem, "The Hound of Heaven," which says:
I fled Him,
down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years:
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Yet, try as we might to evade God, we will inevitably find that it can't be done, because no matter where we go, our hearts are designed to find their centre in the heart of God. Even when we are on our worst behaviour - like Jacob, the man who swindled his brother out of his birthright - God still pursues us with an unqualified love.
There is an old Hasidic (a form of Judaism) tale "...about three pious Jews who decided to travel to a distant city to spend the high holy days with a famous rabbi. They set out on their journey without food or money, intending to walk the entire way. Several days into the journey, weak from hunger and still a long way from their destination, they knew they had made a mistake.
So they came up with a plan. They decided that one of them would disguise himself as a rabbi. That way, when they came to the next village, the people would offer them food, honoured to have a rabbi visit their town.
Now, none of the three wanted to be the deceitful one, so they drew straws, and the unlucky one drawing the short straw was forced to don the disguise of a rabbi while the other two dressed the part of his assistants. As they drew near the next village they were greeted with excited cries of joy, 'A rabbi is coming! A rabbi is coming!' They were escorted with great ceremony to the local inn, where they were treated to a sumptuous meal.
When the meal was done, however, the innkeeper approached the [so-called] 'rabbi' and spoke with great sorrow. 'Rabbi, you must pray for my son,' he said. 'He is dying and the doctors have given up hope. But the Holy One, blessed be his name, has sent you to us, and now perhaps, he will respond to your prayers.' The counterfeit rabbi looked to his friends for help, but they motioned him to follow the innkeeper to his son's bedside.
You see, once having begun this ruse, there was no choice but to keep playing the game. So, the 'rabbi' prayed for the innkeeper's son, afterwards the three pretenders retired to their rooms for the night, but they barely slept. They were eager to leave town before their deception was discovered. In the morning, the innkeeper, still hoping for a miracle and grateful for the prayer of this visiting rabbi, sent the party off with the loan of a carriage and a team of horses. They were then escorted out of town with the same great ceremony with which they had been escorted in.
They travelled to the great city where they spent magnificent holy days under the teachings of the famous rabbi, which carried their spirits to the very vault of heaven. But too soon, the holy days were at an end, and the three companions had to go back home through the same village to return the borrowed carriage and horses.
Terrified, the mock rabbi resumed his disguise; his heart was in his throat as they approached the village, especially when he saw the innkeeper running toward them, waving his arms. But to the pretender's delight and surprise, the innkeeper embraced him with joy, exclaiming, 'Thank you, rabbi! Only one hour after you left our village, my son arose from his bed well and strong. The doctors are amazed, but my son lives, and I am grateful for your faithful prayer.'
The two companions looked with astonishment at their phony rabbi companion. What had happened? Had his prayer healed the boy? Was he truly a rabbi all along, without telling them? When they were alone, they turned on him with their questions. What had he done at that boy's death bed, they demanded to know?
He replied that he had stood at the boy's side in silence, and then, began to lift his thoughts to heaven: 'Master of the Universe, please; this father and son should not be punished because they think I'm a rabbi. What am I? I am nothing. A pretender. If this child dies, his father will think a rabbi can do nothing. So, Master of the universe, not because of me, but because of this father and his faith, can it hurt that his son would be healed?'"
That, to me, is a good parable of the way God works. God will approach us anywhere and at anytime and honour even our feeblest expressions of faith. Isn't that what Jacob discovered when he was on the run from his brother? Isn't that what the psalmist is telling us as well? But God isn't only with us when we are at our worst. God also upholds us when events seem to be conspiring to crush our faith.
The psalmist says, "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast."
There once was a common expression that said, "All roads lead to Rome." The author of Psalm 139 would tell you that all hearts lead to God. Or as Augustine, the famous fourth century bishop, once put it, "The only way to flee from God is to flee to Him." The reason is that it is only in God's arms that we may find rest, forgiveness and joy. Amen.
Acknowledgement: Rev. Jim McCrea