Epiphany, Year B
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
By Ragan Sutterfield
E. Stanley Jones once wrote that if there is an instinct in the human heart to conceal there is also a deeper instict to reveal” (Victory Through Surrender). And yet, our culture keeps from authentic disclosure. We are invited, instead, to a kind of performative exposure, a way of revealing that also hides. We want to be known and seen but we do not trust those who might see us. We are afraid of what might happen if we are known, fully, authentically. So we manufacture disclosure on Facebook, hoping that in the commiseration of comments or praise of likes we will achieve what we are afraid to risk through a real openness. It is disclosure at the surface rather than at the depths.
The surface life is the mode of Industrialism, it is the way of cities–all gleaming glass and mirrors. The critic John Berger, an advocate for the peasant cultures of Europe, has written:
“The visceral is an everday, familiar category from an early age to peasants…By contrast, the urban horror of the visceral is encouraged by unfamiliarity, and is linked with urban attitudes to death and birth. Both have become secret, removed moments. In both it is impossible to deny the primacy of inner, invisible processes.” (“The Ideal Palace,” Selected Essays of John Berger)
It is the world of depth, the world of entrails and soil, into which the Psalmist invites us. We are known, we are told, and we can therefore face the realities of birth and death, the truth about ourselves as born beings and finite beings. This is a place where we are able to be our given selves because we are known beyond hiding. We can be honest and open, because we are exposed to the one who made us and loves us. With God we have no need of glass or mirrors. We can lie naked in the sun.
I have felt this freedom and depth mostly in wild places. There is something about being in a constructed place that invites a constructed self. When I am in a wild place, however, I find that I am able to live into my given life in a given world, as Wendell Berry might put it.
To live a given life in a given world is the reality Psalm 139 calls us to and it is a reality that results in praise and thanksgiving. We are invited to marvel at the wonder of our selves, our souls and bodies, now seen in the light of God. We are, in turn, invited to marvel at the wonder of all creation. In wonder, our bodies are drawn into the whole of God’s creation, our attention is pointed to all of God’s works.
Among these wonders is the weaving of the Psalmist’s body in the depths of the earth. This is a beautiful and powerful image because it recalls the formation of the first human from the humus, adam from adamah. Here we are reminded that no only do we continue our life from the breath of God as Psalm 104 tells us, but that we are each formed from the the soil of the earth. This is an image of human life, not plopped down from above, but cultivated from beneath.
Psalm 139 is a poem that helps us know that we are able to live life at the depths because we have been known to the depths. This is knowledge that should then move us to praise and calls for a life settled in God’s goodness.
Our reading of this Psalm in the lectionary leaves off before the end of the actual poem. This is to avoid a call for God to “slay the wicked,” a claim of “perfect hatred” for the enemies of God. I understand the need to leave those passages out of Sunday worship, especially if there is no opportunity to address them. However, I want to end by saying what I find remarkable about these final verses.
Anger, even violent anger, is not uncommon in the Psalms, but here after reflecting with depth about the intimate knowledge God has of us, I find it helpful that the Psalmist hints that he or she may well be among the wicked. There is a recognition that we may, in fact, be among those we hate. The Psalm ends, then, with a humble call for God to continue the work of weaving. We are not only known, but also need to be led “in the way that is everlasting” (v.23).
For those of us who look with anger at the violence of the world, this is an important caution. It is an invitation to invite God’s gaze to examine us and for us to in turn examine ourselves honestly. It is only through such deep openness to God and to our selves that our healing and the healing of the world can begin.
Ragan Sutterfield is the author, most recently, of Wendell Berry and the Given Life. He is an Episcopal priest serving a church in the historic territory of the Quapaw in Arkansas. Ragan is a member of the Wild Church network.
Wild Lectionary is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.