Based on Psalm 139, this is the sermon that I preached on Sunday, June 3, 2018, at New World United Methodist Church, Arlington, Texas. You can listen to the sermon online on the church’s website.
On April 29th, our congregation wrapped up the Healthy Church Initiative weekend. After our consulting team’s four prescriptions were read (including the one that could mean I will begin preaching regularly), we were walking out the door. A church member caught me on the way out and said offhandedly, “Well, I guess we’re going to get to know you a lot better.”
Oh. I’d considered how my work schedule would be impacted by the change, but I hadn’t thought of it that way. Yes, I imagine as I write sermons and share bits from my life from here and there, you will get to know me better.
I went home and shared that comment with my husband that night over dinner, and his reaction was great: “Oh yes, they’ll definitely get to know more about you…and if I mess anything up they’ll probably hear about me, and they’ll get to know stories about the kids. Every time one of us messes up or says something funny, you’ll be thinking, “oh, that’ll preach.”” (I may or may not have already threatened one of my kids that he was about to become a sermon illustration…)
So I’m not so sure how I feel about all that sharing. I’m pretty introverted, but most of my family is not. I know that my bigger kids are a little mortified about their lives being exposed from the pulpit.
But that did get me to thinking… What is it about sharing about our personal lives that made us so uncomfortable? Why did we all have basically the same reaction?
We will take a look at what it means to be known, what keeps us from wanting to be known, and what it means for us as a community of faith to know one another.
Today’s Psalm reading, Psalm 139, is one of my favorite passages of Scripture – it’s my go-to passage for my art and prayer workshops. As I move through the sermon this morning, I invite you to open to the Scripture in a Bible or the New Living Translation version on your smartphone so you can follow along.
What does it mean to be known?
Psalm 139 begins with Verse 1: “O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.”
There are a couple of ways to look at this word. It’s pretty common today to be satisfied with being “known” in the sense that people know your name, your image, they recognize you.
Instagram as a career
In fact, I learned recently that some people have made a lucrative career just out of being “Instagram known.” Instagram is a social media application that allows you to post and share photos. Like other social media, you can follow your favorite Instagrammers to see their latest posts & people can follow you back. The app keeps track of how many followers you have. You know you’re a cool kid if you have more people following you than you are following.
If you’re a professional Instagrammer though, you can capitalize on having a high number of followers. People who have more than 100,000 followers are considered “macro influencers” by savvy marketers and are often paid by companies to visit their businesses and post about it.
Once these influencers get into the range of about 400-500K followers, they can make something like $3-6K for a single sponsored post. This is one way of being known – in the sense of being famous or recognizable.
But what you are seeing in the photos isn’t even real. What you don’t see is the effort behind the photo. They are seated at tables with ideal lighting. There may be strategically placed beautiful people in the shots trying to make the venue look cool without looking like it was a staged photo. People may even come with their own makeup and lighting crew, use a professional photographer, then airbrush the photo to create that perfect Instagram moment the brands want.
So…if you want to go ahead and follow me on Instagram right now, I’ve only got about 400,000 more followers to go.
Culture of putting image first
So, we live in a culture permeated with the pressure to project our best images out to the world. This pressure has always been around (consider even Adam and Eve tried to pull one over on God), but Social media in general has intensified the pressure and given us a platform for choosing what images we share – including the humble-brag highlights of our weeks peppered with a few carefully filtered pictures of the food we eat. Through this lens, we live in to these roles as caricatures rather than sharing our true character. Your likeness… your image… is made known rather than your character.
It is really easy to live our lives in this safe, superficial mode of relating to one another. The problem is – if we live our lives at this level, we are missing out on the essential part of being in community in one another.
There is a different meaning of the word “known”
The Psalm continues: “You know my thoughts even when I’m far away…You know what I’m going to say even before I say it, O Lord…such knowledge is too wonderful for me; too great for me to understand.”
There is a different meaning of the word “known” that deep down we all long for. It’s a messier, more vulnerable kind of being known that goes much deeper. It requires a willingness to let people in to see your junk, to let people know your struggles, your sin patterns, and even your heartaches.
Methodism’s founder John Wesley formed small groups that developed deep community through hard questions like “How is it with your soul?” and “Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?” Wesley seems to have realized that we all crave this kind of community where we are known, but it’s a practice we are tempted to hold at arm’s length.
What keeps us from being known in this way?
This kind of being known requires that we risk rejection, recognize our worthiness, and put forth the effort.
Fear of rejection
A primary fear that keeps things superficial is a fear of rejection. We don’t let people get to know us because we are afraid they will discover something about us that they won’t like and they may reject us.
Even clergy writing sermons are tempted to keep sermons safe and unobjectionable because of the fear that people will leave the church if their toes get stepped on. (for the record, you don’t have to always agree with what I say in my sermons, but please don’t reject me….)
Sense of unworthiness
A second fear that keeps us from being known is a fear of being unworthy. It is tempting to believe at times that you are somehow not worthy of being known and loved by others. I love how this Psalm reminds us that each of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful (or marvelous) are God’s works.” God’s character goes into the creation of every person. When you feel worthless, or even begin to hate yourself, you can remember that God’s spirit is ready and willing to work within you.
You are worth knowing. Every person with whom you lock eyes is also worth knowing.
A third barrier to knowing one another is that we are just too busy to put forth the effort. With so much to do all the time, it’s a lot easier to just be friendly than to really be in community. Honestly, it’s a lot of work to get to the point that you are really known. Just think of how we greet each other with niceties like “How are you?” “Fine, you?” It takes more work to think about how you really might be feeling, and even more work and risk to share that information with other people.
To really get to know one another takes time, listening, and sharing life with one another. It’s easier and quicker to make sweeping assumptions about how other people are based on the boxes we put people in like politics, race, gender and education, than it is to really get to know one another as fellow human beings.
The question to consider is, which fears and excuses are you willing to give up in order to risk being known?
What does it mean that God knows us so well?
How well God knows us
How well does God know us? God knows us completely. God has examined our hearts and knows everything about us. God knows us in minute detail, God knows the number of hairs on our head. As the Psalmist reminds us, God is inescapable and always with us, even in our dark and secret places.
God has been with us from the very beginning, since before we were even knit together in our mother’s wombs. God is never going to abandon us.
God is a faithful & trustworthy knower
Although God knows us completely with a knowledge that is “too wonderful” for us to comprehend…God still abides with us and loves us.
What we can learn from this is: God is a faithful and trustworthy knower.
God also wants to be completely known by us. John Wesley preached on a concept he called “spiritual respiration” or breathing. Just as we must have breath in order to live, we must have God as part of our existence in order to be spiritually alive. A challenge with this is that, unlike breathing, to be in relationship with God takes conscious effort on our part. We can grow to a point of deep community with God through developing habits like regular prayer, Scripture study, and life in Christian community. We can grow to a point of deep community with one another through developing habits like praying for one another, studying Scripture together, and working toward really knowing and understanding each other.
Words of hope and a Call to action
As people of faith, we are also called to grow to a point of deep community with the all of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As Rev. Joseph Nader reminded us last week, we each have unique and important gifts and talents to bring to the Body of Christ. As a community, we need to know one another and to allow ourselves to be known. As a group of people with diverse views on a lot of subjects, we have a beautiful opportunity to model healthy Christian community. I challenge you to take someone out to lunch and get to know one another. It’s worth the risk. And as we move forward as a faith community no matter the results of today’s vote, we can have full confidence that God is present even as we venture in to uncharted territory.* My prayer for each of us is that we be willing to see the image of God in one another.
Let us pray:
O Lord who searches and knows us, we praise you for your constant presence and love in our lives. We are reminded today that there is no darkness we can encounter, no circumstance we can face, no place we may venture, no choice we may make that can separate us from your complete, all-encompassing love for us. Help us to lean into remembering that you, God, are always with us. Help us to risk getting to know one another so that we can be the kind of people who are known for how we love you, love one another, and strive to be your disciples. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
What key takeaways do you have from this message? What keeps you from being known by others? Who do you know that needs to hear this message?
*Later in the day on June 3, New World’s congregation voted 133-3 to adopt and move forward with the Healthy Church Initiative prescriptions. Go to nwumc.org to learn more about New World United Methodist Church.
Giving credit where credit is due: Scripture links are to the New Living Translation version of the Psalm on Biblegateway.com. Instagram career link is to an article on Elle.com. To learn more about John Wesley’s questions, check out umcdiscipleship.org. Be sure to read up on John Wesley’s sermon too. Follow me on Instagram @erinjackso.
Thanks for visiting and reading all the way to the bottom of the page! I hope you’ll leave a comment. Be blessed! ESJ