Rev. John Burnett
Scripture:Psalm 139:1-18,23-24; Romans 8:31-39
Sorting It Out, Jul 23, 2017
Just a personal word: I am retired, really I am. Can't you tell? I do play golf; we do take trips; but between all of that, a few things the Lord has done. I want to read something this morning, and I'm not going to do the traditional and put the scripture up on the screen, but I'm going to ask you to do something a little bold, if I may. I want you to think of a place where you are comfortable, where you might go if you just want to shut down and shut everything out and just rest. I have my places; maybe for you it's church, maybe it's the eastern sierras, maybe it's out fishing, maybe it's in the quietness of your home, or in your car. I want you to find your place, and then I want you to close your eyes, and I'm going to read the Scripture. This is a message from the psalmist then telling people the story for a long long time and people have been listening. So it's a personal word. It's a personal word to each of us. So get comfortable. Just close your eyes if you're comfortable doing that, and listen to this song.
"O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. 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. 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. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them-they are more than the sand; I come to the end-I am still with you. 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."
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
But I wonder what you heard as the psalmist spoke to you. People have been listening to this psalmist perhaps as long as three thousand years. Each of us have a life journey, don't we? Did you hear words of comfort, maybe hope, assurance ,or maybe you're a little more critical. Really? Every thought? That's a little intrusive, isn't it? All of my fantasies? Or maybe skeptical. Psalmist haven't you heard about the Holocaust and all the bad stuff out there? That's where the God is Dead movement came from. I must say that on my first quick reading, I was explaining to Charles, and I thought this was a seminarian prepping for an ordination exam to convince all of the folks that they were orthodox. Is it really that good? Is it really that trustworthy?
We don't know anything about the author, and I think that's good because we don't know the circumstances, exactly what this psalmist is going through. It gives you and me room to plug into it. Words like where can I go where can I go to flee from your presence? I wonder if this psalmist didn't have an experience like that? Maybe like The Prodigal Son. Maybe try to go someplace and in the end, looking back, says even in my greatest rebellion, moving as far away from God as I could possibly get, you were still there. I wonder how far we can go from God in our own experience. I will know that you were here, however far you went ,you got back. Something brought your back. But if you ever felt abandoned; if you ever felt that God wasn't there; maybe through a job loss, broken marriage, or maybe had to relocate. You really didn't want to move. The loss of a spouse, child, or friends. You pray and you pray and you pray, and it seems to be of no avail. Are you really there, God, when they tell me I have cancer? I don't know the psalmist's experience. Perhaps this psalmist went through the wilderness of Sinai that we talked about last week when we said God is our home not a place. Or maybe this psalmist had experienced or went through the Babylonian captivity when Israel was prisoners of war, when things were tough. But what I get from this is perhaps a psalmist who has gone through some deep waters and looks back over all this from the years, and one thing I'm very comfortable with this psalmist is incredibly comfortable with their relationship with God. That no matter what happens, God is there. This is a survivor's testimony; in all that happens I am not abandoned. Words of hope. Words of faith. This is how the psalmist sorted it out, and we have a choice because faith is a choice. We can choose how we will respond even in the deepest of depression the darkness is not dark to you, it is light. this psalm is not one of theory. I believe it was one written in the great halls of theology. It has its basis and experience, in looking back. It is so incredibly personal. I wonder what your story is. If you live long enough, you have a story, and you have a story that has some difficulties in it. How did you get where you are, and as I said before, you are here, aren't you? Some experiences we have just don't seem so Godly, do they, especially at the time?
A brief story of how we got to WPC. Pastoring a church in the desert, and the folks there decided they didn't want to continue being a church; they want to join with the church downtown. They had a pastor; they didn't need me. That's how Pat and I came here. It certainly didn't seem at the time very Godly. We all have a story, don't we? An observation: in the story is the psalmist starts and begins with God, not with me. It is God the one that psalmist speaks about in confidence, and then the psalmist shifts, shifts from about God to about self. We read these words again, "For it was you who formed my inward parts. You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." I have a suspicion that was written by a mother. I remember the days when we were expecting our children. My wife was aware of every stage and everything that happened, and I was told about it. I was told feel the kick. I was told, I think the baby is asleep or when she was trying to sleep I think the baby is awake. Looking forward to this person being intricately formed in the womb. I suppose that's why we have bigger attendance on Mother's Day than Father's Day, or if you have a child by adoption, you remember the time you waited, the anticipation for something which Godly given and intricately made was coming into your care. It's a positive statement about creation.
Now just a side note, when I grew up we had a visiting evangelist who used to come to church. Some of you had those experiences, am I right? Several of you. One of my observations was if you didn't feel bad when you came in, you certainly felt bad when you left. You heard about all the bad things about human beings.
Now, lest I pick on them, let me tell you about the Heidelberg Catechism, which some of you may have memorized when you grew up in church. Where does it begin? Part one, "The Misery of Man." And very close to that comes the statement, "Man is so perverted, is there any hope?" Well the confessions soften up a little bit. The Westminster confession speaks more about grace, a little less harsh. By 1967 we're talking about some more optimism as we are in our last brief statement. I'll talk about sin later. It's certainly there. But if creation were fundamentally evil, then how do we handle these statements in Genesis and God created and the statement. "And it is good."? So the conflict. Who are humans, and what do we believe about our nature? The conflict gets personal, because what your assumptions are about humankind drives how you will behave toward humankind. And it hit me, in all places, during a business class doing my MBA at San Jose State University in 1965. It was a class on human relations, and we're reading that book "Human Side of Enterprise" by Douglas McGregor which had been published in 1960. It became the landmark in human resources and human relations about how we manage people. Almost every manager book that has been written since then is either in reaction to, rebuttal to, or affirming McGregor's work - it was at the MIT Sloan School of Management. And he made a very clear point depending on your assumptions will depend on how you manage. I'm going to give you a little business lesson. Theory X was his - divided these in clear points - the average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if at all possible. Humankind must be controlled with punishment in order to get them to align to organizational goals. And humankind wishes to be directed, avoids responsibility, has little ambition and wants security above all else. Now to be quite honest, in the '60s that was an operative assumption of management. McGregor moves on to say, "I have a different theory." He says, "Work is as natural as play and rest, and people will exercise self direction and self control to those goals to which they are committed. People seek responsibility, not necessarily avoid it. And people can exercise imagination, ingenuity, creativity in solving problems, and that is widely distributed in the population. And the intellectual potential of human beings is only partially utilized. It hit me right between the ears. God speaking to me in a business-class of all secular places, but it opened up that dialogue didn't it?
How do we view our creation in light of God, because the impact of our beliefs impacts our behavior. Are we using uniquely built capable and of value or are we inherently bad? There's an interesting study was going on same time called Pygmalion effect, or educators refer to it as the Rosenthal effect. It goes like this 2 groups of students' classrooms. One group teachers are told these folks have little capability; they're not very bright; you may make some progress with them, a little bit but not a lot, so do what you can. The other group are told your students are bright, they're capable of a lot of things, you have to work with them, you have to work hard, but they're capable of doing great things. Truth of the matter is both groups of people were about the same IQ and fundamentally the same. Guess who performed well, and guess who just made little progress? It was based on the expectation and the view of the leaders. Does God see worth in us as humans? A lot of people like to perhaps be hit over the head with John 3:16, but I will remind you of John 3:17: "He came not in the world to condemn the world, but to save it." And if it is inherently evil, it's not worth saving.
The last part of this psalm teaches us to remain in humility and touches us with reality, "Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me, know my thoughts, and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." It's true: humankind can certainly head and some difficult counterproductive directions. We see it a lot. My friends as faithful people we are called to be agents of hope, to do a work. If our goal is simply to avoid failure or sinning, I will tell you that we go nowhere. Even Martin Luther put it like this, "sin boldly." Now that wasn't license to go out and live a lifestyle you might want to do, but the reality is when you are working toward stuff you're going to make mistakes, and when we do we simply come to that prayer, Lord help me to see my heart, the vindictive, or is it pure. Take away any wicked way in me. And that's how we live. We are people of action. We do fail. We do fall short, and we pray, "Search me, and search my heart, O Lord." And when we fail, we have the sense of God's redemption, and then we can change things that need to be changed. If we feel fundamentally good about ourselves, those outside things are not a threat, They're a way to grow; it's about sorting this out. If I choose to live my life trying to avoid doing the wrong things; just never going to get anything done; that's the reality. If I see the world as an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth and about put-downs, then my hands and my fist are closed, but when you dig deeply into what the Lord has told us that he cares for all, it opens our hand up even to those we don't like or don't understand. We are all, all, created by God intricately made, creatures that you created. And to be a child of God is to dig deeply into our souls and affirm what God has created and in the end we stand with Apostle Paul who went through a lot of conflict with a Roman Empire, with the church community, and of all of this and all through this, when it comes down to the end rock bottom he writes this: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord," and when we live from fear we shut down and lose touch with the person God has greatest us to be, and when we live with hope and grace, we open our hands and our hearts to God and to others whom God has created us to be. And, my friends, simply put, this is news to live by this is the good news. Thanks be to God.
Westminster Presbyterian Church