In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only LOVE can do that” Our current darkness is deep, thick, and heavy. If the media pundits are to be believed, this darkness is only going to get darker, thicker, and deeper. Whether it is the dire darkness of the climate crisis, the bleak darkness of the tribal uprisings in the United States, the catastrophic darkness of this pandemic, or our very own lockdown grieving darkness, it is going to take a whole lot of LOVE to drive out this historic, epic darkness which the whole world is experiencing. As we peer into this dark abyss, we cannot help but long for a glimpse of the LIGHT. I confess that in the midst of all that, in the midst of all this darkness, I miss the almighty-sky-god. I miss the god I used to pray to.
The god which I trusted to solve all my problems for me, to comfort me in my distress, and calm my fear. I miss the god of my own making, the idol I have long since put away. It was simpler to put my faith in the almighty-sky-god, to whom I once prayed to for deliverance. Even though I know the idol of my creation is far too small a god to deliver enough LIGHT to drive this darkness away, it is so tempting to seek the old familiar methods of praying to a personification of the ONE who IS BEYOND, the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also. I must confess that in the midst this darkness, even this progressive pastor finds it difficult to relate to the MYSTERY which is the LOVE we call, “God.” I too, long too long to return to a simpler time.
I remember a long time ago, when I was just a teenager; during those tumultuous years, I was going through a particular dark period. And at that time, I discovered the Psalms. I was new to the church and only just learning my way around the liturgy. Each week a Psalm would be chanted responsively by a leader and the congregation. In my tone-deaf way, I was learning the words of the Psalms, discovering the intimate ways in which the psalmist conversed with the ALMIGHTY. One Psalm touched me deeply. It is the Psalm which is prescribed for this the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, Psalm 139. I loved the intimate way in which this Psalm spoke to “the LORD” and I too longed for a similar kind of intimacy with my God. Over and over again, each time Psalm 139 would come up in the lectionary, I delighted in the intimacy of being searched and known by the God which I worshiped. For decades the intimacy proclaimed in Psalm 139 served as a goal to which I aspired.
But during those decades, my primary experience with Psalm 139 was molded by the verses prescribed for use during the liturgy, specifically verses 1-6, 3-18. Psalm 139 is a long psalm, containing 24 verses. Back then, it didn’t seem unusual to me that the powers that be would only use 13 of those verses. After all people have places to go and we can’t keep them in worship for more than an hour. So, I was content with the sublime images of the intimacy which these 13 verses inspired and indeed Psalm 139 became my favorite psalm. Sometimes, because they are so beautifully evocative, some of the missing verses are included by the church, in worship. But there are some verses which we never seem to use. Nevertheless, Psalm 139 remains my favorite psalm. So, I would like to read it for you as our Gospel for this morning. I’ll let you know when I get to the verses which I’m leaving out. I’ll indicate the spot the way this psalm often appears with an ellipsis: . . . a dot dot dot in place of those verses. I’m reading from the Inclusive Bible. The Holy Gospel as it is recorded in the Book of Psalms:
YHWH, you’ve searched me,
and you know me.
You know if I am standing or sitting,
you read my thoughts from far away.
Whether I walk or lie down, you are watching;
you are intimate with all of my ways.
A word is not even on my tongue, YHWH,
before you know what it is:
you hem me in, before and behind,
shielding me with your hand.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
a height my mind cannot reach!
Where Could I run from your Spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you’re there;
if I make my bed in Death, you’re already there.
I could fly away with wings made of dawn,
or make my home on the far side of the sea,
but even there your hand will guide me,
your mighty hand holding me fast.
If I say, “The darkness will hide me,
and night will be my only light,”
even the darkness won’t be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day—
darkness and light are the same to you.
You created my inmost being
and stitched me together in my mother’s womb.
For all these mysteries I thank you—
for the wonder of myself,
for the wonder of your works—
my soul knows it well.
My frame was not hidden from you
while I was being made in that secret place,
knitted together in the depths of the earth;
your eyes saw my body even there.
All of my days
were written in your book,
all of them planned
before even the first of them came to be.
How precious your thoughts are to me, O God!
How impossible to number them!
I could no more count them
Than I could count the sand.
But suppose I could?
You would still be with me!
… (dot dot dot)
Examine me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts—
see if there is misdeed within me,
and guide me in the way that is eternal.
This is the Gospel of our God.
dot dot dot is what is known as an ellipsis, a symbol which is defined as “something deliberately hidden.” I can still remember the first time I read the verses which have so often been hidden from us deliberately. Listen to what follows the ellipsis. dot dot dot
O God, if only you would destroy those degenerates!
If only these reprobates would leave me alone!
They talk blasphemously about you;
Your enemies treat you as if you were nothing.
Don’t I hate those who hate you, YHWH?
Don’t I loathe those who defy you?
I hate them with a total hatred,
And regard them as my own enemies!
Once I read these verses, I could not forget them. I remember reading them and wondering why I should worship such a god as this. Hatred was not what Jesus taught us. So, like many Christians before me, I began to adopt a kind of superior attitude toward, what I used to call “the Old Testament,” for surely the Jewish people had an incomplete understanding of the nature of God and we Christians, we knew better. This kind of tribalism allowed me to set these troublesome verses aside and maintain my illusions about the superior nature of the god which I worshipped. Fortunately, over the years I have been blessed by many wise Jewish, teachers, professors, and friends who have helped me to plumb the depths of Jewish teachings about the nature of the MYSTERY which we, both Jews and Christians alike call, “God.” In addition to these Jewish sisters and brothers, I have also been blessed by Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and indeed agnostic and atheist teachers, professors, and friends who have taught me the expansive nature of the MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of ALL that IS.
It was a Hindu classmate and friend who gifted me with the image of this MYSTERY which continues to help me aspire to become a Christian. Notice I didn’t say, “aspire to become a better Christian,” because you see, in conversation with my Hindu friend, I learned the story which is told of Mahatma Gandhi who was asked, “Mahatma if you like this Jesus fellow so very much, why don’t you become a Christian?” To which Gandhi is reported to have said, “When I meet a Christian, I shall become a Christian.”
Jesus is not easy to follow. I try, but I am not yet a christian. I do, however, aspire to be a christian. And it is the image of the MYSTERY which we call, “God,” which I learned from my Hindu friend which continues to help me aspire to become a Christian. I remarked to my friend, on how difficult it was for me to understand how Hindus are able to worship so very many gods. My friend explained that all gods, even the christian god, all gods are just educational toys which we play with as we learn about the ONE god, who IS, and this is the image of the MYSTERY which sustains me to this day: the ONE who IS, is BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that Also.
Both the psalmist and I were playing with toys and we had and do have so very much to learn about the MYSTERY who IS BEYOND, our images, BEYOND our words, BEYOND our definitions, BEYOND our theologies, BEYOND our carefully held beliefs, I could go on and on, with these BEYOND’s. Both the psalmist and I, and you too, our notions about the MYSTERY which we call, “God” are far too small, too much like ourselves. For as the Ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes insisted, if horses could draw gods they would draw horses. How else could the psalmist have come up with a god who inspired him to hate? How else could Christians come up with a god who would demand a blood sacrifice?
Our imagines of the DIVINE begin with ourselves, as we carve, draw, sculpt, write, and pray to images of the MYSTERY which are not in and of themselves the MYSTERY. They are but educational toys with which we are playing with, to learn about the nature of life, about reality, about DIVINITY. The trouble comes when we begin worshipping those toys, those pale, imperfect, images of the MYSTERY which is BEYOND our ability to imagine. Those educational toys have become the idols which we worship. Perhaps, it is because those idols affirm who we are and not who God IS, that we become so very lost when those idols come crashing down. There is a reason our ancestors warned us against worshipping idols. Unlike icons, or symbols, which point BEYOND themselves, idols hold our gaze, limit our vision, and they prevent us from seeing BEYOND. So, today I find Gospel in the verses of Psalm 139 which shatter the idol of the far-away-sky-god, which I once worshipped, by allowing me to see how quick I am to hide the things about my nature and the nature of reality which I do not understand.
Jesus was a Jew who is revered in the Islamic Qur’an, and ranks as a great teacher among the peoples of many faiths and of no faith at all. Jesus is admired by all those who aspire to LOVE. As a teacher, Jesus dug deeply into his own Jewish faith to proclaim the core of Jewish teachings as the commandment to LOVE your neighbour as you LOVE yourself. Jesus images of the MYSTERY which we call, “God” were all informed by Jesus’ conviction that “God is LOVE.” LOVE draws us BEYOND ourselves, BEYOND our fear, BEYOND our tribe, BEYOND the DARKNESS.
From within the darkness of this abyss in which we find ourselves, I am both comforted and challenged by the words of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only LOVE can do that!” Nostalgia for what has been shattered may leave me longing for the faraway-sky-god I once prayed would drive the darkness away. But it is time, in the words of the Apostle Paul, for us “to put away childish things.” Yes, it is difficult to pray to a MYSTERY, knowing that that MYSTERY is ONE in which we live and move and have our being, the ONE who lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond us. For this means that this MYSTERY, as the mystic Treresa of Avila insists, “has no hands but yours, no body but yours.” Ours are the hands, ours the minds, bodies, and actions which LOVE will use to drive out the darkness. We must be LOVE in the world. And so, I continue to pray to the ONE who IS LOVE, trusting that LOVE to work in, with, through, and beyond you and I, to drive the darkness away. There is a Jewish mystic, Levi Yitzchak who has paraphrased Psalm 139 in a way which comforts me as I pray. Rabbi Yitzchak uses the word “YOU” for the DIVINE MYSTERY, which is the LOVE we call, God, when I pray the Rabbi’s prayer, I substitute the word LOVE.
Let us pray:
Where I wander—LOVE!
Where I ponder— LOVE!
Only LOVE everywhere, LOVE, always, LOVE.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.
When I am gladdened—LOVE!
And when I am saddened—LOVE!
Only LOVE, everywhere LOVE!
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE.
Sky is LOVE!
Earth is LOVE!
LOVE above! LOVE below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only LOVE, everywhere LOVE! Amen.
Dear ONEs, what a comfort to know that YOU are there. In this darkness we will be LOVE to one another and the darkness shall not overcome us. Every act of LOVE, every gift of LOVE, every risk taken for LOVE’s sake, all of LOVE’s tenderness, compassion, help, aid, comfort, and grace is ours to give. So, let us be LOVE in the world, in our neighbourhoods, in our workplaces, and in our homes, let us be LOVE. It is time to put away childish things, so that we can embody LOVE. LOVE will drive out darkness. Let it be so, Dear ONEs. Let it be so. Amen.
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