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Good morning, church. Thank you, Micah, for preaching last week. That gave me a minute to wander in nature, and trust me: not all who wander are lost. I went with AJ and some of our friends to the Black Creek national forest, and we canoed about 21 miles over two days there. There was no cell coverage, no buildings, barely any people. It was amazing, Micah, thank you.

As we continue to celebrate Easter, we’re launching as a church into an extended series through the Psalms. It has been our habit over the past four years to take this time of the year to really give one of the larger books of the Bible the time it deserves, so over the next thirty weeks or so, we’re going to spend our time in the prayerbook of the Bible, so if you would, please turn with me to Psalm 139.

I chose this psalm because it was the first psalm I remember falling in love with, and one of the things I’m hoping this series will do for our church is just to help us fall in love with the psalms, to use them as Jesus would have, and as the people of God have through the ages, to help us be honest with the Lord, to pray as Jesus and all of our spiritual ancestors taught us to pray.

This book is one that will surprise you with its honesty—even the psalm this morning talks about hating the enemies of the Lord, and he calls on God to slay the wicked. It’s not what we usually pray, which is part of why reading through the psalms is so helpful. These prayers are raw. They get real, and delve into the depths of human emotion. They get violent, they express doubt, they accuse God of being uncaring and not hearing our prayers, they praise him ecstatically, and in every way they represent a true human experience of faith in the God of creation.

Far too often we tailor our prayers to what we think God will want to hear, but like any good father, he mainly wants to hear what we actually think. He wants to hear what we actually feel and believe; even the rougher parts of what we feel and believe, he wants us to express, because he knows them already. As our psalm this morning teaches repeatedly, God knows every inch of us. When we hide our actual thoughts in feeling in prayer, we hide them, not from God, but from ourselves.

When you’re reading the Bible, you always have to be mindful of genera. I’m a firm believer in the truth of the scriptures—it’s why I’m always teaching from the canon, even though I read broadly. The Bible is sacred in a way nothing else is, and I’ve defended that idea in classrooms where it was the minority and very unpopular opinion. But in our interpretation of this sacred text, we have to be careful with genera. Genera and context are where most interpretation errors occur. The Bible is true in everything it asserts to be true, and if you’re misunderstanding genera, it’s easy to assume the Bible is asserting something it’s not. You always have to ask yourself—what’s the main point, what is the author really saying here?

Our psalm today is a perfect example. The psalms in general are poetry. That’s the genera. They’re prayers, worship songs, written over a span of hundreds of years. The psalms span from David’s rule all the way until the exile into Babylon. Originally, they would have been memorized and sung instead of read and studied. As poetry, you can expect to encounter a lot of imagery. In the psalm this morning, he’s not really saying the morning has wings, or that God the Father has hands. This is not the histories of the Old Testament, like Exodus or the Chronicles. You’re not getting a lot of facts in chronological order, what you’re getting is a lot of feelings, and images, in no order in particular, to help us understand our lived relationship with this God many of us try to trust and worship.

And with the psalms, you always have to remember, too, as with worship music today, this is humanity speaking to God. If you want to hear God speaking truth to humanity, read Isaiah, read the prophets or the gospels. If you want to hear humans, with all of their flaws, getting it wrong half the time, but still attempting, beautifully, to speak to God, then you read the psalms.

Again, this psalm is a perfect example—when the psalmist says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked…I hate them with a true hatred.” What the Bible is asserting to be true about that sentence is not that God hates wicked people with a true hatred, but that David hates his enemies sometimes, and that God is able to search even the hateful, violent parts of our hearts, and love us all the same. What is beautifully, amazingly true here, is that we are able to pray all of that honestly to the Lord, and he will respond like any good father, with gratitude for our honesty, and with more wisdom than we can imagine.

We know from other parts of the sacred text of the Bible that God loves even his enemies, that he’s able to save you even when you are an enemy of the Lord, but the truth is, we humans aren’t usually capable of that kind of forgiveness, and I’m grateful for a God and a sacred text who are well-aware of our human limitations. This psalmist, David, was chased out of his home, abused and repeatedly threatened as a child, made to live in caves and as a refugee, and over time his heart turned bitter about that. He began to hate his enemies. Then he does probably the best thing anyone could possibly do with hatred. He brings his hatred to the Lord, in all of it’s ugliness.

The main point of this psalm is that God knows us through and through, and the wonder of this psalm is that even though he knows us, he loves us. Even though he knows every hellish part of our soul and of our history, every violent thought, every evil notion, he stays with us. Let’s read it together. Psalm 139. [] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

This is a psalm about the way God knows us. I told you already, this was one of the first psalms I remember falling in love with. It was the opening that really got me at first, the wonder of it. How could anyone possibly know me so well he knows my words, even before I speak them? And in Middle School, when I first came to know the Lord as a person instead of a story or an idea, I desperately wanted to be known. I was bookish, even then, which I’m sure surprises no one. I won the Accelerated Reader contest that year. I remember that was the year I read Lord of the Rings for the first time, and dived deeply into Mark Twain. I started with “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and then just started reading everything Twain had ever written.

I got my braces off that year, and really started backpacking. I was probably taking a trip every other weekend at that point, and was doing five-day trips on most of my weeks off. I stopped unpacking my pack at some point. In some ways I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have a whole lot of people to share life with at that point. My brothers were both older, at a different school. One was involved in sports and played guitar. He was so cool. The other brother was an academic powerhouse, just starting to stretch his wings, taking upper-level physics and calculus as a sophomore. I’m four years younger, and I’ve always been self-reliant enough that if you’re not careful, you can forget I really do need attention and help. I was feeling a bit overlooked, overshadowed.

This psalm teaches that God knows us entirely. In him, you aren’t overlooked or overshadowed. All through scripture, whenever anyone asks the God of Christianity what kind of God he is among all the many gods and faith traditions of the world, he answers, “I’m the God who is with you.” Immanuel, God with us. If you are in a place this morning where you’re longing to be seen and known, know that God knows you completely. He knows when you sit and when you rise. He knows your thoughts, your body, he created you like an artist creates a sculpture. Not only does he know you, he intended you. Every part of yourself that you’re self-conscious of, every aspect of your history or accent or personality that you feel you have to hide to be accepted, he knows it all, and he loves you.

The sin and mistakes of our lives can hide or twist God’s intentions, but they can never break his purposes with us so long as we live, because life in many ways is his purpose with us. You may have made enough mistakes that you’re convinced God is disappointed with you, but our psalm speaks a better word this morning. God knew every step you would take before he carefully created you. Every sin, every failure, every time someone would wrong you. He knew all of that, and still, fearfully, carefully, he crafted you, not out of necessity, but out of joy. He intended you. He loves you.

There are two types of being known, knowing about someone, like an acquaintance, and knowing someone to the bone like family. With the acquaintance kind of being known, you may catch what I’m putting out there. You’ve looked me up on social media, or come to church and heard a sermon, or maybe you’ve even been to my house, which is a little closer. But even then, that kind of being known is under my control. I choose what I say in public, how I look, what shirt I wear. If you come to my house, I probably clean before you get there. If people at that level of knowing love you, it doesn’t really matter, because what they love isn’t really you. But you may keep people at that distance, because then if they reject you, it also doesn’t matter for the same reason, because they didn’t really know you. But there’s another kind of being known that gets out-of control, and it’s not nearly as safe as all of that.

There are people in each of our lives who have gotten close, who have seen us with our hair undone, before we put on our clothes for the day. They’ve helped us through embarrassing things. Or they remember us when we were children, before we were any kind of put-together or accomplished. They remember the failures we don’t really broadcast anymore, and they were with us through difficult times. Those people have gotten beneath the armor, and you’re vulnerable with them. If they decide to hurt you, then you’ll be hurt. If they decide to love you, then you’ll be loved, and with those people, we desperately long to be loved.
One of the joys of adult life is choosing who you let close. And one of the delusions of adult life is that you can choose who you let close. There are certain people who will be beneath your armor whether you want them to be or not. Parents, spouses, roommates. Anyone you’ve lived with. Children, for sure. You don’t get a choice of being acquaintances with some people. You have a relationship to your parents whether you want one or not. You can keep them at arm’s length, but you’re still not acquaintances, then, you’re estranged. That’s only healthy if they’re trying to hurt you. You can try not to care what they think of you, but, you’ll fail. They are under your armor whether you want them to be or not.

The psalmist is saying, God knows you like that—which, pause, realize, that’s both beautiful and terrifying at once. He doesn’t just catch what you’re putting out, he knows every part of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re on top of the world or buried under the weight of the world, he’s going to be there with you. He’s not naive. He knows every corner of your heart, even where it’s darkest, most hidden, but your darkness is light to him.

Just like our relationship with our children or with our parents, we don’t get to choose whether or not we are in a relationship with God, what we choose is whether or not that relationship is healthy. He created you; he knows you. You can’t become acquaintances with God, or with parents, or with children, you can only become estranged. There’s no getting around this relationship, there is only what we do with it.

Which, for a lot of people in the room, just comparing the way God knows us to the way our parents know us will help us understand the second stanza of the psalm, “where shall I flee from your presence.” Letting someone beneath your armor, again, is terrifying, especially if you’re not entirely proud of what’s there. Sometimes we run and hide from people who want to know us that way. That reaction makes sense if someone who was under your armor hurt you.

But hear this: no matter what you’ve heard, no matter what you’ve believed in the past; God loves you. And he doesn’t just like the things you do, the things you say, it’s not the things you wear or the way you do your hair. It’s you he likes. He sees you, and he loves you. He’s a good father. You can keep him at arms length still—he’s good enough that he will respect your will—but if you do estrange yourself from him, you’re only separating yourself from grace, and forgiveness, and love. He is only ever waiting and watching on the road for you to come home.

The only way to teach people about this aspect of our God where he knows and loves us is to participate in it. We have to teach people through experience with the Church what it’s like to be known and loved in Christ, and I say this with mourning: I think people’s experience with the church is largely the opposite. Church often is a place where you hide yourself, find a mask that fits in. And if you do allow yourself to be known, oftentimes you’re rejected. When I invite people to church, the most common reason I get for why they may not want to come, is they say they don’t feel good enough. We can say that impulse comes from a misunderstanding of the gospel, but we also need to ask ourselves seriously as the Church, why is that particular misunderstanding so prevalent in our time and place?

We have to do a better job of getting to know people, which involves listening instead of talking. We can’t be people who are easily offended. Like our God in the psalm, we need to be able to hear the violent, dark parts of people’s soul and still stay beside them. The Spirit of God will help us in this. He is gentle and lowly in heart, and he is drawing us toward the same.

Now, hear me, I’m not saying every church, or even our church, should revel in pain and darkness. We should rejoice with everyone who rejoices, and speak only that which builds up the body. We should pursue excellence in everything we do, as though we do it unto the Lord. We should just also weep with those who weep, and encourage people on their less excellent days. This is not a choice, where we have to pick positive and encouraging vs. gritty and real. It should be a both/and. This should be a place where people have the freedom to be a little messy, not because we love the mess, but because we love the person.

And loving a person, as our psalm reminds us, involves knowing them. The kind of knowing that actually loves a person takes time. Have you ever been to a small group meeting where you’re a visitor, and all the sudden someone is telling you their life story and asking you for your deepest secrets? Let’s not be that church. Like, I’m not going to tell people I’ve only just met my address, much less my sin and history. But let’s be a church that creates reasonable opportunities for vulnerability, with a culture that encourages both being real and celebrating all of the good gifts our father gives.

Many of you know, since I started here at the church, and really before that through our work with foster kids, I’ve been deep-diving into the core needs and solutions related to complex trauma, and I’ve been working to move the ministry side of our work into a trauma-informed ministry model. One of the key concepts in trauma-informed ministry is something called felt safety. For example, with kids in foster care, a lot of them are coming from malnourishment and neglect. And one thing you do for them is you have a bowl of snacks on the table at all times that is available to them at all times. Food is always a yes for a kid who’s been starved. Even right before dinner, even after they brush their teeth at night, because for them to relax and feel safe, it’s not enough just to give them enough food, they have to know from their toes to the tips of their fingers that there will be food available when they need it.

In the same way, people can’t just be safe in a relationship with our church; they have to feel it, from their toes to the tips of their fingers. They have to know if we are with them on our worst days we’re going to want to be with them on all the rest of the days. It reminds me of a Rich Mullins song we sing here sometimes: “Though you’re a stranger, still I love you. I love you more than your mask. And I know you have to trust this to be true. And I know that’s much to ask.”

This is something we all want. We want to be known, really known, and loved all the same, and beautifully, this is something our creator wants for us. He wants us to be able to love and be loved. I would invite you this morning to believe in a God who knit you together, who created you. Who knows when you sit and when you rise. Who is there with you in the heavens and in the depths. And your darkness, even your hatred, is light to him. He has searched you and known you. And he loves you.

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