There’s a certain theme that’s popular in Christian music. I want to say that it’s particularly a trait of contemporary Christian music, but… it goes way back. I can sum up this theme by singing a line from a song I am confident we ALL know, an oldie, but goodie—
“Jesus loves me this I know…”
Jesus loves ME. That’s the theme. The particularity of God’s love for me. I think this is easier to sing, sometimes, than to believe. A lot of things can make it hard to believe that the creator of the universe, the savior of the universe, the sustainer of the universe— LOVES me.
I would imagine this might be especially true for historically or currently oppressed people. I don’t have to imagine it really— I’ve heard African American brothers and sisters in Christ speak of the self-hatred that comes from growing up in a racist society—the loathing of the darkness of their skin, the texture of their hair… the sense that there is a real limit to what they can accomplish in a lifetime because of the prejudice they encounter on a daily basis…
and then there is the violence within African American communities— an acting out of self-hatred surely. For generations African Americans were told that they were a cursed people; that they weren’t even fully people. Though those messages have died down, African Americans are still suspect in our society— more likely to be accused and convicted of crimes, or even killed because they appear threatening. Yes, sometimes African Americans break laws and commit crimes, as do all people, but people of color are disproportionately suspect for criminal activity in our society.
With this kind of baggage, I think it could be hard for people who have experienced this sort of marginalization to say “Jesus loves me. God loves me.”
It can be hard for far lesser reasons. But tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at Canaan Baptist Church a community choir that is almost entirely African American (save for about five of us) will sing in honor of the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and do you know what will be the main theme of the songs this choir will sing? JESUS LOVES ME. Every song, really, is about the exquisite particularity of God’s love for each person. And oh my goodness, I hope you’ll come tomorrow night, you will be blown away by the singing. There’s no hesitation or doubt in the affirmation of the love of God in Jesus Christ for me on the part of this choir. It’s breathtaking, really.
I spent Monday studying Psalm 139 and then I went to this choir rehearsal and sang these songs and I was bowled over by the resonance between the ancient song captured in Psalm 139 and the contemporary singing of this choir. The first thing that struck me as I slowly read each verse of this Psalm is the back and forth of the you and me. You have examined me, You know me. You and me, me and you, again and again. All sorts of pop love songs kept jumping to mind as I sat with this Psalm- you and me and me and you… two of us riding nowhere… I will always love you.
For the first 18 verses the Psalmist speaks of being absolutely, fully known by God, and this knowing, though it exceeds human capacities for knowing, it’s not ultimately a distant knowledge, but rather a deeply intimate knowledge. The word love never appears in this Psalm, but this knowing that takes the form of relentless, inescapable presence, of the careful intricate weaving of our very being, this has always suggested love to me. Nothing I can do, nowhere I can go, nothing about me will every put me out of God’s reach. This is unconditional love. This is steadfast love. This is amazing love. Love for me. (And you.) This message of love is worthy of prayerful meditation. I think, actually, the classic children’s book “The Runaway Bunny” is an excellent invitation to meditation on this message. I’ve put it over at the prayer station and encourage you to spend some time with it.
Often times when this Psalm is read in worship we stop at vs. 18 or sooner. Or we jump from vs. 18 to vs. 23. Verses 19-22 with their talk of enemies, and hatred, and violence… they seem to disrupt the glorious praise of this intimately knowing and loving God. They are jarring. But these verses reveal the painful circumstances of the Psalmist’s life. Being known and accompanied by God has not protected the Psalmist from experiences of conflict. Most scholars think that the Psalmist has been accused of unfaithfulness or idolatry and composes this Psalm to affirm his close relationship with God. And when he appeals at the end for God to examine and know him… after already affirming that God has done that and does that all the time… it does seem quite likely that he is asking the only one who does truly and completely know him to vindicate him, to restore him, to establish justice for him— in the face of what he believes to be false accusations against him by people who don’t and can’t truly know him.
That’s the thing about being human. There are real limits on our knowing. It is particularly difficult to know other people, and to be confident in our knowledge of other people. We read people through our particular lenses. It is hard to know people on their terms. It can be very difficult to know whether someone is being genuine or deceitful. We cannot see into one anothers’ hearts and grasp fully our multiple, complex motivations. Sometimes by listening deeply and carefully to one another for a number of years, we overcome some barriers to interpersonal knowledge. But as those who have been married for number of years can attest, sometimes the longer one is in relationship with another, the more mysterious that other becomes.
Because of the limits on our knowledge we often operate on assumptions. We fill in gaps, sometimes in an educated, careful way, often impulsively and unconsciously. And often we don’t examine our assumptions and we can be rather protective of them. They are ways that we make sense of what often seems like a senseless life. But sometimes accumulated assumptions cause real trouble between human beings. Often, I think, negative assumptions ground our experience of having enemies in this life— we assume ill will, poor character, hypocrisy, ineptitude… and we act out of these assumptions. And those we have assumed these things about defensively assume a host of negative things about us… and for them too, behaviors follow assumptions… and conflict erupts.
Right now, in America, when it comes, particularly, to white-black relations, I think a whole lot of people are feeling falsely accused, and threatened, and estranged from one another.
Though we have officially overcome segregation; though we have elected an African-American president; the racial divide in this country has not been overcome. Many often point to participation in Sunday morning worship services to make this point— the most segregated hours in America.
I think it is empowering, in the face of all this discord and unrest, for each person to affirm the very real, very present, very particular love that God has for him or her— for me. For you. I think this is why the singing of the community choir for the service tomorrow night is so powerful. I think it’s why whenever Christians sing this old, old theme it is so powerful. I think the fragile nature of human life and human community explains why this has been a beloved Psalm for generations.
But I think that we’ve only done half the work we need to do if we stop with the affirmation that Jesus loves me, that God loves me… There’s another great children’s book called “Old Turtle and the Broken Truth”—that’s over at the prayer station too. In that book it is suggested that a great truth fell from the sky and when it fell it broke. Human beings found the shimmering fragment of the truth which communicated “You are loved” and the possession of this truth led to great conflict and destruction among humans— everyone vying to possess this truth. By the end of the book the other half of the truth is found… that finishes what the first part started you are loved and so are they image “You are loved, and so are they.” And this whole truth— of the particularity and universality of love– was healing for the planet.
This is what I hope we’ll hear today as we mediate on this Psalm. The God who has examined me, and known me, who has knit ME together in my mother’s womb, who loves ME… examines every me, knows every me, knits together every me. Human life is infinitely precious in God’s sight. Every human life. Every me. This is too much for us to comprehend. Other translations of this Psalm say things like “This knowledge is too great for me. I can scarcely take it in.” But in a life of faith we can seek every day, more and more, to trust in God’s love for us— and to realize that this love is for the world, for the cosmos— every person we meet is as much an object of God’s love as we are. No matter how irritating he is. No matter how infuriating she is. No matter how ignorant he is. No matter how mean she is. No matter how broken he is. No matter how lost she is. No matter what accusations he or she makes against us. Every human life is a gift from God, sustained by God, held in God’s presence. If only we could let this awareness be our first assumption about our fellow human beings. If only we could let it be the assumption that corrects all our other assumptions, that shapes our interactions. I am loved, and so are they. Let’s start there.
I’d like to close today by sharing a snippet of a sermon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968—
I wish I had a recording of it in his voice… but I draw what I share from sermon notes archived on-line. After affirming that God IS love in eternity… contrasting human beings who love with the God who IS love he goes on to say…
“Notice secondly that God so loved the world. In other words, God’s love has brea[d]th. It is all inclusive. It’s a big love, it’s a broad love… Jesus came on the scene saying “Our Father” meaning that he is everybodies Father. God’s love is to[o] broad to be limited to a particular race. It is to[o] big to be wrapped in a particular garment. It is to[o] great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God. This fact has been a ray of hope and has given a sense of belonging to hundreds of disinherited people…
“All of the hate in the world cannot destroy the universal effect of God’s love. Along with its brea[d]th, it is personal and indi[vidu]al. God loves infinitessimal Me.”