What is God Thinking Right Now?
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost • August 27, 2017
Pastor Elyse Ambrose
Psalm 139:1-18O God, 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 God, 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.
Wow. What a beautiful picture Psalm 139 gives us of God’s love toward us, each and all. No matter where we go, no matter what we do… God is there. God is standing by. Some of us search our entire lives for someone who will be there consistently, who won’t throw us away. And there is God. Some of us seek to be known deeply and embraced wholly. And there is God. Some seek to be cared for, to feel safe and protected, to be affirmed, and to be simply (but unconditionally) loved. And, there is God. I cannot think of a scripture that better reflects who God is. God is love. And one of the greatest ways that God shows that love is through extending abundant, and life-giving grace—the free and unearned act of God restoring estranged humanity to Godself, walking step-by-step with us, inviting us to go deeper in God— continually, lovingly, without fail.
Yes, God is a God of love. God is love, continually extending grace and yet, this is not the God that I saw during the beginnings of my Christian journey. Maybe this is not the God you all saw either. Perhaps, some of you still struggle to see this God. What I saw was a God who loved me. Sure. And wanted to extend grace to my sinful, dirty, needing-to-be-washed-“white as snow” self... that loved me so much that somebody, namely God’s son, had to die because of how horrible I was/we all were. I learned of God as a punishing, retributive God. And, every bad occurrence in my life was framed as reproof for some hidden or overt sin. What a self-centered faith! I was completely consumed with the idea of my sin, because God was consumed with completely and totally ridding me of sin and thus, sin was framed as the preoccupying thought of God’s mind. Perhaps, for some people this is an extreme view. You didn’t hear much about fire and brimstone. Count your blessings.
Yet, when I see people who want to follow Jesus beating themselves up, harshly judging themselves when they fail, I get the sense that maybe the God of love and grace needs to be more deeply known. When I encounter persons who believe themselves to be unworthy of faithful love and relationships of mutuality and respect, I question how much we’ve internalized the fact that God is all about love and grace. When we see people and condemn those whose actions offend us, or that we find to be much more sinful than the type of things that we would ever do, I get the sense that the God of love and grace must be embraced and known much more. When I observe a world where punishment/incarceration/death is the only “just” response for a misstep or even an egregious crime, and that Christians are at the forefront of that charge for greater punitive exercises and more law and order and more restrictions and greater economic disparity and less bodily autonomy, I wonder if the body of Christ deeply and transformatively knows the God of love and grace.
If we truly looked deeply, we might find that when many of us think, “what is on God’s mind? What is God thinking about?” we may very well respond, in so many words, “Sure, love and grace.” But, also, “The things I’ve left undone.” “The things I did last night—the person I slept with, the drugs I used.” “The fact that I am lesbian or queer.” “The ways I fall short.” And yes, some of these things are sin, in the truth that they estrange us from God, ourselves, or some part of creation. But, much of these things are not sin, and do not warrant our immediate punishment or damnation. And yet, our minds, conscious and subconscious, are condemning us about them, and as a result, we often think that God is condemning us, too.
But, what today’s scripture shows us, and perhaps even our own experience of having truly seen the Divine in our lives, is that above all God’s thoughts towards us are about love and grace. We’ve been taught that sin is the big story, and that our existence revolves around freedom from sin. But, what if—and I believe this to be true—grace through love is the bigger story and our existence revolves around receiving and reflecting this gift, receiving and reflecting the Source of this gift.
Perhaps our inner and outer life might benefit from a shift toward grace and a focus on this gracious God, and a shift away from focusing on ourselves and our own imperfections. Thankfully, our Methodist tradition centers grace, and can help us out here. So, here is Methodism 101, in part. Methodism frames grace in three manifestations that cover the span of our entire lives. First, there is prevenient or preventing grace, which is that grace that prompts, as John Wesley (the father of Methodism) put it, “[our] first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning [God’s] will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against [God]. All these,” he says, “imply some tendency toward life; the beginning of a deliverance from a[n…] unfeeling heart.” Before coming to know God, Wesley would say, God was still with us. Prompting us, inviting us to come and walk with God. Secondly, there’s justifying grace through which we are first restored to right relationship with God and receive this inner longing for intentional reconciliation after the estrangement in which we often tend to live. This moment is considered to be a moment of conversion, and is accompanied by repentance— the commitment to, in the face of condemnation, or unforgiveness toward others, or imbedded biases, or the pursuit of oppressive power and other things that separate and fragment… to go another way, to walk in God’s way. Finally, there is sanctifying grace, in which Wesley says “we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God.” This is an everyday process of becoming. An everyday living with and in God, which has the power, when we do it wholeheartedly, to transform our worlds. Just like the psalmist reminds us, through it all, there is God.
So, what is God thinking right now? I don’t know. We can never be completely sure. I just present the evidence and ask us to look at God in our lives, and draw some conclusions that can help us through this thing called life. But, what the scripture in its fullness says, what our knowingness that we are never alone or forsaken says, what the second and third and forth, fifth chance confirms is that it probably ain’t sin. But instead, I propose, maybe God’s mind is on that grace that enshrouds you when you are at your lowest, and even when you’re so high up you forget what it’s like to be down. Maybe it’s on grace that offers forgiveness and knows exactly what hurt, what emptiness drives us to do the harm that we do. Possibly, it’s on getting us that grace that woos us to be open, expansive, growing, healing, transforming when we want nothing more than to give up and close ourselves off. Or, that grace that offers gentle prodding and daily invitations to improvement and reconciliation in ways that the Spirit reveals. Grace that is a salve to any ailing, any pain, any woundedness, not to “fix it,” but to remind us always that there, wherever “there” has led us… there is God.
As I close, I just want to note that this is not only grace for grace’s sake. This grace that is so essential to who God is fills us to abundant overflowing, not solely for our own sake, but for the good to come about where it is most needed. As we are filled with grace, so will this world be. We’ll extend grace to ourselves. Yes. And we’ll treat this planet with grace. We’ll treat our fellow living things with grace. We’ll extend it to our neighbor. If we were to read a bit further in Psalm 139, we’d see that even the psalmist struggled with that concept. After this beautiful ode to God, it is said, “O that you would kill the wicked” and “I hate those who hate you and rise up against you with a perfect hatred.” Hmmm... That takes an unexpected turn. Let us not let our zeal for righteousness cause us to dehumanize or hate. But let us, in the face of sin respond from the heart of the God of grace and offer that gift that brings about the justice and healing and goodness we seek.
**Take a moment to breathe and sit with grace.**
Sin is no small matter. God is grieved by it, and so are we by its action and its results. But, sin is not the beginning or the end of the story. The beginning and the end are grace and love. The beginning and the end is God. Friends, let us have the courage to receive the gift of grace, not as a gift to be cheaply squandered and that allows us to do whatever because God will forgive and love, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against. But, let’s receive it was a gift that has the power to bring about the good in our lives and in this world. May it be so.