Sermon: Fly on the Wings of the Morning

September 10, 2017
Psalm 139:7-12
Season of Creation: Land Sunday

Many years ago, I proved how much I love my son.

We were on vacation in Baltimore, Maryland, which was the setting for the UCC’s General Synod in July (and that has nothing to do with my story).

Baltimore is home to one of the greatest children’s museums I’ve ever seen. It’s called the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, and it’s big, with lots of places to explore and levers to push and knobs to turn and things to climb and also a space for the littlest children, someplace smaller that they could explore.

That’s where my daughter was, with her mother. My son and I were out and about. We found this one exhibit which taught about principles of domestic engineering – that is, how a house goes together – by being something of a crazy house. Light switches turned on the wrong things. Furniture didn’t have even legs. And in one section, there was a crawl space for a drain pipe. Drain pipes are supposed to lead to, well, the sewer. But because this was a crazy house, it went somewhere else. And because it was a children’s museum, you could crawl through it.

My son, who was probably seven at the time, took one look at this dark tunnel and dove through it.

I, however, hesitated.

I have a touch of claustrophobia. It doesn’t kick in often. I can handle elevators. I’m OK with my knees jammed into the seat ahead of me on an airplane (well, not very OK). I can even manage the top bunk of a bunk bed.

But I don’t like dark tunnels that have been sized for seven year olds.

The thing is, I didn’t know where it went. I knew it had to have some odd outlet elsewhere in the crazy house, but where? I could spend some time finding my son again, time for him to realize that his father hadn’t followed him through the tube, time to become afraid at being alone. Time for me to be afraid about him being alone.

So I swallowed hard, got down on my hands and knees, and crawled on after him, not knowing just how big this space was, and whether I’d fit through it at the end.

And that is how much I love my son.

In the opening lines of Psalm 139, the poet describes God to God: and it’s a pretty dramatic portrait. The God of Psalm 139 is always present, always watching, always aware. “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me,” it reads in verse 5, which gave a couple people in our Bible Studies this week something of a sense of claustrophobia. Even the Psalmist seems a little uncomfortable:

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,” the poet says. “It is so high that I cannot attain it.”

It feels more like that dark tunnel to me.

Is it any wonder that as our passage starts this morning with the psalmist’s question: “Where can I go from your spirit?” I’m hemmed in; I’m surrounded; my thoughts as well as my words are known. Where is my privacy? Where is my space? Why are you making this dark tunnel?

Karoline Lewis writes: “Immanuel is not always the God we want – this God who insists on staying close, persists in being in the middle of what we do and say, especially when it comes to those things we say and do in God’s name.”

The strange thing about this poem, this prayer, is that the psalmist gets positively lyrical as he talks about fleeing from God – and how futile that flight is. “If I ascend to heaven,” “if I make my bed in Sheol,” “if I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea…” you, God, are there.

And God’s presence ceases to be oppressive, but becomes a comfort. God becomes the leader, and the support. God becomes light in the night.

As Peter Lockhart writes: “The reality though is this: we hope in what we cannot see, and even in what we do not fully experience for ourselves: that God knows us, that [God] loves us so deeply, that in Christ God has renewed all things and that through the Spirit we have been drawn into God’s life together.”

As the psalm continues, it grows, if anything, more intimate. God’s compassion, power, and presence have been part of the psalmist’s life even as it was beginning. And likewise, the poet writes, “I come to the end – I am still with you.”

It’s as tender as a love poem.

The close of Psalm 139 takes a different turn, because the psalmist feels oppressed, and asks God for deliverance from the enemies that threaten. Now the words are not so tender: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me.” This is the summons of someone feeling very desperate indeed – and someone confident in God’s ability to save. It comes off feeling a little bit like, “I love you, see? Now go do as I ask.”

But with storms lashing islands in the Caribbean and the Florida mainland, and the monsoon rains pounding Bangladesh; with white supremacists openly marching and nuclear threats being shouted across the Pacific; with ocean levels rising and those in power determined to ignore it: I have some sense of the psalmist’s need. “O that you would restrain the wicked, and the hurtful, and impersonal power of the storm, O God” – that’s my prayer. “Let peace come.”

Rather than flee from God – since that would be fruitless anyway – the psalmist finally turns to God, and let that be encouragement for us. We may indeed fly on the wings of the morning, but let us do so to find God, and not to flee. Let us look to the wonders of the land: the rising mountains, the green hillsides, the spray-strewn beaches, the wave-tossed cliffs, for signs of the presence of God. Let us look to the wonders of humanity: our creativity, our compassion, our aloha. Let us remember that we do not need to go anywhere to find God: God is here around us, beside us, and within us. It may feed other hungers to seek for God elsewhere, but it’s probably simplest, and maybe even quickest, to seek God right here.

In addition to Psalm 139 itself, here are a couple of prayers that might help us do that:

Rabbi Martin Buber wrote in 1947:

“Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
When I am gladdened – You!
When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Sky is You. Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!

Or, in a section of an ancient Irish prayer attributed to Saint Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.


Preacher’s note: I learned in preparing this sermon for the web that the poem/prayer attributed to Martin Buber was actually written by Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. Buber quoted him in his book Tales of the Hasidim (New York: Schocken Books, 1975). I apologize for the error.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on September 10, 2017

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