Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
What does it mean to know someone and to be known by someone? We think we know each other. But we get disappointed when the other person doesn’t live up to what we thought we knew. A friend shares a secret that we told her in confidence and we feel betrayed. We didn’t think she was capable of doing that. We even do this to ourselves. We think we know ourselves, but then we disappoint ourselves, or get some feedback from another person that makes us wonder if we really know ourselves as well as we thought. We see ourselves as kind and generous, and are surprised when someone confronts us about being unkind and stingy.
Part of the problem is that we view each other through our cultural lenses. We’ve each grown up learning a certain set of standards and ways of doing things. It’s so much a part of how we view ourselves and our world that we can’t imagine another way to look at things. So we either think we understand each other , or we judge each other’s behavior by our standards, ignoring how the other person sees things. It happens all the time; we barely notice it. It can be as simple as one person who has no qualms about walking around the house barefoot and another who thinks that’s gross. It may seem minor, but it is amazing how much wonderful intimacy is missed by such culturally determined judgments. How do we learn to look inside another person with patience that leads to compassion rather than judgment?
One time when Martin Luther King was preaching in a church in Birmingham, after the I have a dream speech, a white man rushed up to the pulpit and started beating him. People from the congregation immediately rushed to the scene and restrained the man and started beating him. King shouted out for them to stop. He said that the man was simply doing what he had been educated to do, and that they needed to stop the cycle. He went to the man who had been beating him and embraced him while those who were restraining him gradually let him loose.
ML King invited the people in that congregation in that particular moment to see each other beyond the limits of their cultural stereotypes and the sin of racism, and instead to see each other as valuable human beings. Blatant racism like that shown by the man that attacked King looks pretty offensive. But sometimes our sophisticated and subtle expressions of those isms are even more destructive. King saw in the man who attacked him a typical white man from the south who had been educated to hate blacks and needed to be liberated from that hatred.
All of the Scriptures this morning address how we know, how we are known and how we treat each other based on that. In Jeremiah God compared creator and creatures to potter and clay. When the clay doesn’t turn out the way the potter expected, the potter reworks the clay into the desired form. God was disappointed with the people of Israel and intended to shape them into a people who fulfilled their purpose.
How do we tap into the power to become someone who sees the good in other people? The process begins by encountering the very source of love. King believed that the image of God dwells in every human being because he had been met by the God who knew him. He knew people the way Ps. 139 shows that God knows us. Each of us must tap into the emotional resource of being known, seen and loved for who we really are by the deepest source of love that many call God. That’s what Psalm 139 invites us to: to know that we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, and that we are fully known and loved by the one who created us. When we know another person that way – wounds, warts and all – we can treat them compassionately, taking into account their uniqueness when we view their capabilities and incapabilities. That’s why it was a small step for ML King from that belief and that knowing to recognizing behind the apparent racism in the white man a person who was just acting on what he knew. I don’t know how the story turned out, but I imagine that the white man was never the same. King had called forth the person that he really was.
Being known at that level uncorks the capacity to recognize the truth which is latent within us. Many try to start the journey without this emotional experience of encountering the source of love. The journey will always be short circuited when it misses this beginning point. We can’t just decide to love each other and forgive each other and succeed at that difficult task. If we haven’t had a transforming encounter with the source of love, whether we call it God or a higher power or something else, we cannot treat ourselves or others with compassion and forgiveness. Take your bulletins home today, and cut out Psalm 139 and post it on your refrigerator or your desk or your nightstand. Let its truth sink in deeply. Open yourself up to being known in a way that is too wonderful and so high we cannot attain it.
But once we have that encounter it becomes a matter of decision – the choice of the will to respond to that emotional resource, which is only potential until it is exercised. We are to create relationships and communities on earth that demonstrate the same quality of seeing and knowing that already exists in the way God sees and knows us. Paul was calling on his friend Philemon to do that with his former slave, Onesimus. Clearly Philemon had experienced that encounter of being known by the source of love. That is why Paul could express such gratitude for his faith. But he then dared to call on him to receive back his former slave as a brother rather than a slave. That had economic, political, moral and social implications for Philemon. It went against all of his cultural upbringing. Paul called in his relational chits. “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” And he offered to pay any of his debts so the reconciliation wouldn’t be blocked by them.
Today this might mean learning to see and live beyond the isms. If there is power in being known beyond stereotypes, there’s also joy in knowing others beyond stereotypes. In any human relationship, as in any human community, someone needs to take the first step in seeing the other beyond stereotypes. That’s what ML King did. At St. Athanasius we have both the challenge and the opportunity to know each other beyond stereotypes of race, gender, age, class, language, sexual orientation, educational level or politics. Sometimes those block us within our own language group, and sometimes they block us between language groups. Someone has to take the first step. And that’s where we often get stuck. So often we feel like the victim or the hurt one so that we don’t think it’s fair that we should have to initiate the process. But if both of us feel like the victim we will never move forward. We have to engage the will. We have to understand something of the importance and negative impact of stereotypes to muster the will to work to move beyond them.
Being a follower of Jesus also requires certain skills. Today’s rather shocking Gospel lesson says we have to count the cost and learn the skills to follow the way of Jesus. That means we must empty ourselves of what we think we know. We will never move beyond our stereotypes if we think we already know the other person. We’ll never really depend on God if we keep relying on our possessions. Whether we imagine the way of Jesus as a tower or a battle, we must learn the skills of that way, and not depend on the skills and knowledge we think is enough.
That is the path of discipleship, especially in a multicultural setting like we live in today. We have to learn skills for relating across cultural boundaries. Most of us grew up in monocultural settings; so we start the journey toward multiculturalism, toward seeing people beyond stereotypes, without the skills necessary to effectively exercise our will and desire to know the other truly. We want to relate well to people who are different from us, and we believe it’s important enough. But we lack certain skills to pull it off. That’s okay. Disciples don’t start out knowing everything. Whatever gift or desire or will we bring into the room, we must develop the skill so it is not a barrier. We can’t do that by denying its existence. What skills do you need to develop? Let’s take up the call to be disciples, lifelong learners of the skills necessary to bring to life Jesus’ project for the earth. And let’s nurture that journey by engaging our emotions through regular encounters with the source of love, and engaging our will through regular encounters with the world that needs transforming.