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Holy Hearts, Perfect Hatred

Sermon - 1/15/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 139

I've decided for this epiphany season, the season between Christmas and Lent, to do something I've never done before -- to preach through the Psalms that have been set as the lectionary for the Sunday's of epiphany.

So we'll be looking at each of these Psalms, the first of which is Psalm 139, of which we have already read the first 12 verses for our call to worship this morning.  

To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.
1Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
   you discern my thoughts from far away.
3You search out my path and my lying down,
   and are acquainted with all my ways.
4Even before a word is on my tongue,
   O Lord, you know it completely.
5You hem me in, behind and before,
   and lay your hand upon me.
6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
   it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning
   and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me,
   and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
12even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.

So I won't repeat those, but I will continue at verse 13 through 18, after we have heard of God's presence that is with us from the heights of heaven to the depths of Sheol (sort of equivalent, not quite, to the notion of Hell), in other words there's no place we can go where God can't be there.  The next section just parallels that, only speaks of God more in terms of the time of our life.  So listen to God's presence throughout our life:

13For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16Your 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.
17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
18I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you.

This is what I would consider a 'feel good' Psalm.  It's very personal -- the personal pronoun "I", "me", or "my" occurs 43 times in this Psalm.  So it's about us and our relationship with God, although that's not quite accurate.  It's really about me.  Because, you see, the plural "us" does not occur.  It's about me.  It's about each one of us individually, and our relationships with God.

And it has a few surprises for us.  The first is that there's nothing in here about how I get to know God.  How we get to know God.  It's all about how God knows us.  "Know", in various forms, appears 7 times in the Psalm, and it's always God knowing us.  And this is the surprise, that in this vast, great universe, God actually knows me.  Not superficially, not casually, but intimately.  God knows every act, every thought, every thing we've said.  And I know that's rather scary for most of us, this idea that God knows everything we've ever said or thought or done.  God knows what I did last night?  Yeah, God knows.  God knows what I have hidden under my bed?  Or in my closet?  God may know, because I don't know!  But yeah, God knows that.  God knows those foul things I was thinking about what I was going to do or what I was going to say.  Yeah, God knows that too.  

God knows all of that and much more.  And yet not one ounce, one iota, there's not one tiny hint of any judgment in this text for any of those awful things we may have said, done, or thought.  To the contrary, the Psalm celebrates with exuberant joy this intimate knowledge by God of our lives.  And the Psalmist proclaims ". . .such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high I cannot attain it."

And this suggests to me two things.  First of all, that there is nothing we have done or that we likely can do beyond the reach of God's forgiving love.  So while a certain amount of guilt is a sign of a healthy conscience, at some point we have to get over our guilt and accept God's forgiveness and get on with our lives and leave all of that guilt and shame and baggage behind.

Leitha sent to me a story this last week that she read out of a book that Alan Brandenfelds referred to her, "The New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle.  It's a story about our inability or perhaps our unwillingness to let go of the past.  A story is told of two Zen monks, Tazan and Akito, who were walking along a country road that had become extremely muddy after heavy rains.  Near a village they came upon a young woman who was trying to cross the road, but the mud was so deep it would have ruined the silk kimono she was wearing.  So Tazan at once picked her up and carried her to the other side.  The monks walked on in silence.  Five hours later, as they approached the lodging temple, Akito couldn't restrain himself any longer:  "Why did you carry that girl across the road?", he asked, "we monks are not supposed to do things like that".  "I put the girl down hours ago", said Tazan, "are you still carrying her?".

You see there comes a time when we need to let go of some of that baggage that we carry which makes life more difficult.  Letting go of our guilt.  Learning to accept the forgiveness of God, the forgiveness of others, and especially the forgiveness of ourselves is essential to good spiritual health.

So read in the praise of this Psalm that blessing of being known by God without any condemnation or judgment.  

The second thing this lack of judgment suggests from a God that knows us so intimately is that God also knows all the good in us.  God knows when we commit random acts of kindness.  God knows when we forgive others.  God knows when we have good intentions, even when those intentions don't turn out the way we intend.

In the final episode of the Star Wars saga, that great theological reflection in film J, Luke Skywalker refuses to kill the evil Darth Vader when he has the chance.  Why?  Not only because he learned that Darth Vader is his father, but also because, more importantly, he believes in his heart that there is still some good in him.  So he does not kill him.  And he is desperately trying to get his father back into his spacecraft, away from the exploding death star, after his father (Darth Vader) has been fatally wounded while saving his son from the even more evil Emperor.  And he tells Luke that he is dying.  And Luke says "No, I can save you, father".  And Darth Vader responds "You already have, Luke.  You already have". 

You see, like a single candle in the night, even the smallest amount of good is more powerful than the greatest evil, for that good is from God.  And, like Luke Skywalker, God knows that there is great good in each of us so God does not condemn us.  Hence the Psalmist celebrates with exuberance God's complete knowledge of our being.  And in very poetic language, meant therefore to be read with great sincerity and not taken literally, the Psalmist affirms God's intimate knowledge with God's constant presence, from the heights of heaven to the depths of Sheol.  From the moment we were conceived to the moment we die.  In other words, there is no place, no time, when we are without God.

Now, if the wise, nameless souls of the lectionary committee had their way, we would end our contemplation here, on the joys of being forever held close in the heart of God, and we could all go home feeling good about ourselves.  That all is right in the world.  Kind of like Duck fans going home after an Arizona game, celebrating that victory over the basketball powerhouse in the Pac-10.  You know, when we can beat Arizona, everything is right and good in the world.  

So maybe I should quit while I'm ahead.  But I won't.  Why not?  Because I figure I've got at least 10 minutes left in the sermon, and because that's not the end of the Psalm.  The lectionary committee conveniently omits the rather pesky problem that occurs at the end of this Psalm.  After the Psalmist gets us all feeling warm and fuzzy about how God is always there for us, we come to the finale:

19O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
   and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20those who speak of you maliciously,
   and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
   And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22I hate them with perfect hatred;
   I count them my enemies.
23Search me, O God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my thoughts.
24See if there is any wicked way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.

We're never the wicked ones, it's always them.  They're the wicked ones, punish them.  What do we do with a text like this?

I think this must be the favorite verse, in all of scripture, of the Reverend Pat Robertson.  I mean, did you catch his latest, after he announced that Katrina was God's punishment upon all those sinful folk in New Orleans?  He revealed last week that the stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon is the punishment of God.  Here's what he said on his T.V. show:

You read the bible and God said 'this is my land'.  And for any Prime Minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says "No, this is mine".  Sharon was dividing God's land and I would say 'woe' to any Prime Minister of Israel who takes a similar course.  God says 'this land belongs to me', you better leave it alone.

Woe is right.  Evidently God doesn't give a hoot about the plight of Palestinians.  Or about international law, or the security of Israeli citizens.  Or the right of self-determination of Palestinians or Israelis.  God wants Israel to continue to occupy the West Bank and Gaza at great cost to Middle-East stability and anyone who works to end the occupation and to bring peace to the Middle-East must be an enemy of God.  That's the way I read it.

Well, now to the Reverend Robertson's credit, he did apologize to the people of Israel and to the family of Ariel Sharon.  Now he needs to apologize to all of us, for the way he has embarrassed Christians.  And he needs to apologize to God for taking the name of the Lord in vain.  [Applause and Amen's from the congregation]. 

Of course it's easy for me to criticize someone like Reverend Robertson, who I think frankly is the biggest embarrassment to Christian faith on this planet since Adam realized he was naked and hid from his wife J.  I'd tell you how I really feel but I don't want to break my ordination vows or about 3 or 4 of the 10 commandments.

The truth of the matter, however, is that we are not all that different.  I mean, who has not at some point in their life had that same desire as expressed in this Psalm?  To count as our enemies those who hate God, meaning at least those who hate us.  Have we not as a nation hated with perfect hatred Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers?  Of course we wanted vengeance, just as the Psalmist does.  Are we not justified in our desire for the wicked to be punished and to suffer?

Hebrew scholar Walter Bruggeman says "The real theological problem is not that vengeance is there in the Psalms, but that it is here in our midst.  And that it is there and here only reflects how attuned the Psalter is to what goes on among us.  Thus we may begin with a recognition of the acute correspondence between what is written there and what is practiced here".

In other words, the presence of such texts as this gives witness to the very human desire for vengeance.  And it must not be seen as divine justification for our anger.  Rather, it simply affirms that we are not alone.  We are not the only ones to suffer from the deeds of the wicked.  God knows what we have suffered because God has been there before with God's people, and God is there now with us today.  

We are therefore free to confess our feelings and to confess our anger and hatred, get it out and get it over.  And let it go, so that the wickedness of others does not continue its destruction of us.

Martin Luther King, I think, understood this better than anyone.  And he found a way to demonstrate to all of us that the way of Christ was precisely NOT to count as enemies those who hate us or even those who hate God.  "To meet hate with retaliatory hate", he said, "will do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.  Hate begets hate, violence begets violence.  We must meet forces of hate with the power of love."

And you see, that is what changed this country.  The power of love over against the power of hate.  That is the power of the cross that we celebrate as Christians.  

The irony of calling for God to strike out against the wicked is that in the very act we become the wicked we want God to destroy.  Thus the only perfect hatred is that hatred which condemns itself, and in so doing gives way to the love and power of God.  

So if we as a religious, as a Christian, people, don't get that, if we succumb to the hate and the ways of the world in our desire for vengeance against those who hate us or who hate God, then woe to us for we are a lost people to be pitied as those who should have known better.  

But if we do get it, as a Christian people, if we can confess our hatred and be purged of it, so we can say with the Psalmist:  "Search me and know my heart, see if there is any wicked way in me".  Then we can be that power of love.  We can be that force of change.  We can be that light of God through this dark world.

This is the good that will defeat evil.  The way of Christ.  The way not just of ours, but of the world's salvation.  May our prayer, then, be that of the Psalmist:  Search me O God and know my heart, and lead me in the way everlasting.  May it be.


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