Rev. Teri Peterson
a personal relationship with jesus
psalm 139.1-18, psalm 23
18 August 2013, Singing Faith 11
In the Garden
His Eye Is On The Sparrow
Just A Closer Walk
I Will Come To You
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.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil; for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Over the past couple of generations, a hallmark of pop Christianity has been a personal relationship with Jesus, as opposed to participating in a religious tradition. Many people have insisted that all one needs to be a good Christian is a close personal friendship with God, and everything else is trappings of human institution. Meanwhile, many mainline protestants, with our thousands of years of faithful witness in our tradition, have been uncomfortable with this idea of a personal savior, masking our discomfort with spirituality as an objection to privatization of a faith that is so intensely active.
Of course this isn’t an either/or—Christian faith is decidedly both/and when it comes to a conversation about whether we most need a close relationship with God or to follow Jesus into a ministry of compassion, justice, and changing the world. The kingdom of God is here, Jesus says, and we live in it when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. They are not mutually exclusive!
The hymns people requested for today give us beautiful examples of both aspects of this Christian life. We have been reminded by a man who wrote in solitude in his basement darkroom that in the quiet of the garden on Easter morning, we too encounter the risen Christ, one on one, and hear his voice spoken directly to us, reminding us that we are beloved, valuable, beautiful, worthy, and called. And soon we will join our voices with a community of people who started singing in the plantation fields, seeking to walk beside God even as they bent low over the cotton crop, affirming that for all the injustice and horror they were experiencing, it’s God’s opinion that matters most. As the psalmist put it, God is already on our path, laying it out step by step. And then we will hear God’s call through our own voices, God’s constant presence encouraging us to be who we were created to be, singing out through the voice of our neighbor in the pew.
Throughout scripture we see that God goes to extraordinary lengths to be in relationship with us. In the beginning, God walks in the garden with Adam and Eve, and talks to them face to face. God negotiates with Abraham and with Moses, goes in front of the people of Israel as a guide, appears in person to Elijah, and fills the Temple with tangible glorious presence. When that kind of relationship still proves too distant, God walks among us as a human being, sharing our existence, our experience, our feelings, our life and death, our meals and concerns and joys and friendships. God is like the friend who just won’t give up, who keeps calling long after we stop answering the phone, who stops by to check on us when we don’t answer our email, who brings gifts and sends cards, persistent no matter how we respond.
Or, to use the language of the psalmist—where can we go from God’s presence? nowhere. Even in the darkest valley, even in the middle of the night, even at the ends of the earth, even in the place of death, God is with us. God’s presence is a constant, trustworthy and true.
And yet the experience of God’s absence is so common. Both in times of crisis and in everyday life, many people reach out for God’s hand only to find themselves grasping in the darkness. Often we see God’s footprints alongside ours only when we look back on the journey, while in the midst of life, whether we are walking through a dark valley or simply going about our everyday lives, waking and sleeping, eating and relating, working and playing, it feels as if we are on our own. Sometimes I think that’s because our uniquely American philosophy of individualism and free will has so crept into our theology, that we forget that we were not created to be alone. Sometimes I think it’s because we human beings are so often most invested in our own well being and our own ideals, we forget that we are not the creators and masters of the universe. And sometimes, honestly, we just haven’t cultivated a relationship with God that can withstand the pressures of busy-ness, crisis, and day-in-and-day-out living.
A friendship with God builds like any other friendship—on a foundation of trust. That trust comes from regular contact, from seeing God’s faithfulness to the promises, from spending time together, from experiencing all the ups and downs of life together. Without trust, there’s no relationship to be had. The psalmist gives us a peek into what that trust looks like. In the darkest valley, in the despair, still he can affirm God’s leading and God’s presence. In everyday life, when the minutia threatens to overwhelm, the psalmist returns to focus on the fact that God’s presence and God’s purpose are constant. When consumed with thoughts of all he has to do and be, the psalmist reminds himself that God’s thoughts are so numerous and so weighty, he can’t understand, but even when he tries he finds that God is there, sharing life and hope and wonder well beyond our comprehension.
God promises and provides, and though the psalmists cannot comprehend, they have enough background with God to know that even in the darkest valley, even in the fear and despair, they are not alone. Do we trust God like that? Do we trust God enough to let God into the innermost workings of our lives? Do we trust God enough to let God challenge the ways we do things, the assumptions we make, the privilege we hold so tightly? Do we trust God enough to listen, not just talk? Do we trust God enough to follow where God’s leading, in our personal lives, in our national life, or in our church’s life?
How do we nurture this relationship with the God who reaches out and walks beside us? God has initiated a relationship already—God is always reaching, speaking, calling. Do we desire this relationship? Knowing that it will change everything—relationship with God leads always to transformation into God’s kingdom people. We will not be able to keep it private, because faith is always both walking humbly with God and doing justice, because following Jesus takes us out into a world in need of compassion, of hope, of good news. If we do, then we simply start by spending time with God. Invite God’s presence into every activity, knowing that the invitation does not mean God wasn’t present before, but rather that you are open to experiencing God’s presence. Spend time just talking about your day, without asking for anything. Stop for a few minutes in the middle of the day and just listen—what in your environment, on the radio, in the show on tv, on your commute, in the voice of another person, could be the voice of God? Know that while God is beyond our imaginations, God is also in the eyes of every person. Be on the lookout. This week, take a few minutes every day—knowing that the command to rest and honor God comes even in the midst of the work that is never finished. Twice each day, not right when you wake up or go to bed, but in the middle of the day, set a timer for three minutes. Ask God to speak, and then listen for how God speaks in that moment—don’t be tied to hearing a voice, but listen to everything around you and wonder what God is saying in that sound, whether it’s nature, electronic, city noise, or another person. It could be a building block in a beautiful relationship. When the timer goes off, give thanks for that time together, then refocus on work, carrying that sense of God’s presence with you.
Remember that we call this a spiritual practice—as in, no one is perfect at it. We practice, and practice more, and practice more, but we never achieve perfection. What we achieve is a closer relationship with the One who calls us to come and follow, to live in the kingdom and so change the world.
May it be so.