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Psalm 139: 1-18, 23-24 – January 18, 2015 The Presbyterian Church of Dover, DE “Who  Am  I?” 1 In the early 1980s I was going through a difficult time. I was slowly making my way out of a desperately unhappy marriage, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that my spouse did not want the marriage to end, and was exerting his many gifts for manipulation and shaming to subvert my efforts. Although I grew up in a wonderfully supportive family, I did not want to appear to be a failure in this area of my life, and so for a long time I resisted sharing with them how difficult things were. I was embracing what  Peter  Gomes  has  labeled  “the  imposter  syndrome”  – but more about that later. There were two areas of my life that gave me comfort: my church family – especially the choir, and Mr. Rogers. As to Mr. Rogers, I think I have mentioned before that he really was my therapist during those days. I would come home from my workday at the bank and watch Mr.  Rogers’  Neighborhood, and wait for him to look me right in the eye and tell  me,  “I’m  so  glad  you  are  my  friend.    I  like  you  just the way you are.”    At  church,  I  felt   safe and generally supported, and the singing always helped. But also helpful was the sign  over  the  mirror  in  the  choir  room:    “God does not make  junk!” I share this very personal slice of life with you because most of us have experienced very painful times when we struggled to believe we were loveable. Psalm 139 is our prayer, dear friends. It is a prayer of confidence and trust. In fact, some scholars hold that it would have been written by someone who had been wrongly accused by enemies of some offense. (Robert Bratcher and William Reyburn, A Handbook on Psalms, New York: United Bible Societies, 1991, 1123) The lectionary builders leave out verses 19-22 wherein the psalmist asks God to destroy his enemies, and allow us to dwell in the  intimate  and  ultimate  relationship  between  God  and  the  psalmist.    I’m  fine  with   leaving out those verses, although I think they can serve to remind us that the psalms were the prayers of  real  human  beings  who  weren’t  always  very  grown  up  about  their   2 petitions, and were brutally honest. Our psalmist is certain that he will be acquitted because God knows him completely. In other words, the psalm answers the question  “Who  am  I?”  with  a   resounding  “I  am  God’s  child,  completely  known  and  loved.” “Who  am  I?”  is  a  particularly  urgent  question  in  our  time  as  well. “It  is  not  only   teenagers who struggle with a sense of identity. It might be the parent whose children are all away from home for the first time. It might be the caregiver whose spouse has just died after a long illness. It might be the  retiree  who  isn’t  sure  what  to  do  when  she gets up in the morning. It might be the newly divorced person who is not sure how to move forward. It might be the person who has lost a job and has no idea how to define herself. This  can  lead  us  to  what  I  alluded  to  as  “the  imposter  syndrome.”    Peter  Gomes   was the preacher to Harvard University, before his untimely death in 2011. He wrote a book about reading the bible with mind and heart titled The Good Book. In it, he describes  “the  imposter  syndrome” as an image-building activity that engages us from our  earliest  years  onward.    He  says,  it  “is  designed  not  so  much  to  impress others as it is to protect ourselves from the discovery on the part of others that we are not all that we  appear  to  be.    …We  develop  strategies  to  prevent  exposing  this  fraud.    We  dress  a   certain way, use a certain body language, speak a certain way, pile up credentials to prove  that  we  are  ‘good  enough.’    He  compares  us  to  the  Wizard  of  Oz, hiding behind the curtain, using smoke and mirrors, hoping no one will discover that we are not what we  appear  to  be.    But  God…..    Here’s  what  Gomes  writes,  “Well,  there is good news, 3 and  that’s  why  they  call  it  the  gospel.    The  news  is  not  that  we  are  worse  than  we  think,   it is that we are better than we think, and better than we deserve to be. Why? Because at the very bottom of the whole enterprise is the indisputable fact that we are created, made,  formed,  invented,  patented  in  the  image  of  goodness  itself…  Self-worth, self- esteem, self-value…  are  the  stuff  of  goodness  and  godliness  itself,  and  it  is  that  image   that provides security and serenity in the world. People may take everything away from you, they may deprive you of everything you have and value, but they cannot take away from you the fact that you are a child of God and bear the impression of God in your very soul. You cannot be destroyed, and that cannot  be  denied.”  (Peter Gomes, The Good Book, New York: Avon Books, 1996, 198-200) Psalm 139, with its beautiful and even scary poetry, is telling us that God is with us – in our very being – deeper than anything anyone can ever measure or understand. No matter what, no matter what – God knows us and God loves us. Do we hear that? Any way we look at it, God knows us and loves us, and we cannot possibly understand it. This amazing psalm is truly a hymn with 3 stanzas. “Verses  1-6 declare that God knows everything the psalmist thinks and does. Verses 7-12 acknowledge that God is present with him everywhere he might go. Verses 13-18 affirm that God has been  present  and  actively  involved  with  him  from  the  very  beginning,  as  his  creator.”   (Marsha Wilfong,  “Psalm  139:  1-6, 13-18,”  (exegetical  perspective),  Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett, Louisville: WJKP, 2008, 249) God knows everything we think and do. There is nowhere we can go that God is not with us. There may have been times in our lives when we would have preferred that God’s  attention  was  somewhere  else.    But  that’s  not  the  case,  and  truly  that  is  good   news.    “Where  can  I  go  from  your  spirit?    Or  where  can  I  flee  from  your  presence?  If  I   ascend  to  heaven,  you  are  there;;  if  I  make  my  bed  in  Sheol,  you  are  there.”    In  the ancient Hebrew cosmology, Sheol was the underworld or the place that was the 4 greatest distance from God. We have little trouble believing God is with us when we are experiencing  “mountaintop”  times  – those memorable times when the beauty of creation or music or the love of one we love washes over us as pure grace. But what about those times when we find ourselves in the hell that people can create for one another on earth? Surely all who have experienced the horror of war, of battlefields of one kind or another,  might  question  God’s  presence.  “I  am  in  hell  and  God  is  nowhere  to  be  found.”     Not so. God is there – even in Sheol. God is there and loving us, knowing us. God has known  us  since  we  were  formed  in  our  mother’s  womb  and  will  know  us  until  we  return   to God and will know God as we have been known. (Paul – 1 Cor. 13: 12) One pastor described visiting a cemetery in the Channel Islands dedicated to the unknown dead of World War II, where the remains of soldiers have been interred. No one knows exactly who is buried there. No one knows what birth date or death date to inscribe on the headstones. No one knows the names. But One knows: the One who holds and beholds the unnoticed sacrifices and sufferings of our world. Across each gravestone  are  inscribed  the  words  “Known  by  God.”  “Known  by  God.” (Jeremy Troxler, “Hemmed  In,”  Faith  and  Leadership  website:  http://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/hemmed ) We  wrestle  with  this  question,  “Who  Am  I?”  and  what  is  the  meaning  of  my  life? Our identity is not rooted in the things we say about ourselves or the labels others place on us, but is rooted in the One who knows us more deeply and more lovingly than we could ever even know ourselves. And because of that, our lives have a worth that cannot be taken from us – by others or even by ourselves. We are beloved children of 5 God, who knows us and from whom nothing can separate us. The German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached and urged resistance to Hitler. He even was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Hitler, and ended up in prison where he was executed. Shortly before his execution he wrote  a  poem,  titled,  “Who  Am  I?”    He  contrasted  what  others  said  of  him  with  what  he   knew  of  himself.  He  ended  the  poem  by  asking,  “Who  am  I?    They  mock  me,  these   lonely  questions  of  mine.    Whoever  I  am,  thou  knowest,  O  [God],  I  am  thine.”    (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: the Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, New York: Collier Books, 1977, 347-348) Who  are  we?    God’s  children,  known  completely  and  loved  completely. Thanks be to God. Amen. © 2015 Mary Baber Reed 6