Sunday, January 18th, 2015 – Sermon on Psalm 139 and John 1:43-51

John 1:43-51

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

4Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

11If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your 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.

17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

This past week, a group of us began a book study on Making Sense of the Bible. We focused on the Old Testament this past week and we learned that there is an entire section in the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible that is not in our Bible. It’s called the Apocrypha. Now back about 500 years ago, our good friend Martin Luther decided to take those books of the Bible and put them in a separate section of the Bible in between the Old and New Testament. And then over time, publishers stopped including that section of books in the printing of the Bible.

Now, there are very few days in my life when I wish that the Apocrypha were still part of our Bibles. I don’t know much about it and I don’t miss it. But there is this one story in the Apocrypha that has grabbed a hold of me and won’t seem to let me go. It’s a beautiful story. It’s a sad story. But I think it is story that we all need to hear.

The story is a Jewish folk-tale about a righteous man named Tobit, who is among many other Jews that have been taken into exile by the Assyrians. We’ve been talking a lot about the Jews being taken into exile over the past couple of weeks and how horrible that must have been to be taken from your homes and forced to live enslaved in a foreign land.

But Tobit was determined not to lose his faith. Cautiously, yet courageously, he practiced his Jewish faith underneath the nose of his captors. At home, he kept kosher and only ate the food his Jewish faith allowed. When out in public, he shared his food and his clothing with the other poor refugees who filled the streets.

But then he does one more thing to practice his faith, and it is the thing that gets him most in trouble – he becomes the unofficial funeral director for the enslaved Jewish refugees. You see, the Assyrian slave-drivers would toss the dead bodies of the Jewish slaves over the city wall, leaving them, in a heap to decompose in the sun and the shame. To the Assyrians it was a form of throwing out the trash and reminding everyone who was in charge.

But then Tobit, in a risky yet reverent act of faith, would go out side the city walls, and reclaim the bodies and give them a decent burial. It was his way of practicing his faith and quietly proclaiming –these bodies are not trash. But rather they were created by God and declared “very good.”[1]

Tobit was a Jew. Which meant that he would have probably known the psalms. In fact, he maybe even had them memorized. And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps his favorite psalm was 139.

1O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

2You know when I sit down and when I rise up …

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…I come to the end—I am still with you.

Knowing Tobit’s story, I can’t help but think that that Psalm was the one that had the deepest meaning to him. That when he first heard it, his heart swelled and he got goosebumps on his arms, because it spoke to him like nothing had ever spoken to him before and he knew that it had the most sacred and divine words that could ever be shared with this world. Maybe at night when he was a child, his mom or his dad would sing the psalms to him, and every night he put in a request for 139. And his parents must have grown so tired of it. Like I do of Good Night Moon or Let it go.

I wonder if Psalm 139 was in his mind and on his heart when he watched as those beautiful and beloved bodies were discarded like trash. And perhaps the words of Psalm 139 inspired him to march outside those city walls in an act of political and faithful defiance to reclaim those bodies and to do that sacred work of caring for the dead. Maybe Psalm 139 had been so deeply written into his heart that it changed the very way he lived his life.

The story of Tobit is about 2,500 years old. But you know, we have a more modern Tobit story from our lifetime. Some of you may remember that in 2011, there was a tsunami that struck and devastated parts of Japan. During that tragedy, Fumie Arai lost her mother. After a long and desperate search, Fumie finally found her mother’s mud-covered body in an abandoned middle school that had been turned into a make-shift morgue. But for as awful and heartbreaking as it was, there was one piece of comfort: someone had apparently cared for her mother’s body, having tenderly washed her face and set her features to look at peace.

Fumie said, “I dreaded finding my mother’s body, lying alone on the cold ground among strangers…When I saw her peaceful, clean face, I knew someone had taken care of her until I arrived. That saved me.”

Unknown to Fumie, her mother’s caretaker was Atsushi Chiba, a retired undertaker and a father of five who attended to the bodies of more that 1,000 tsunami victims. Why? Because as Buddhist, he too had a strong tradition of caring for the dead. You see, most of the victims of the tsunami had been quickly wrapped in plastic, retaining their twisted shape and faces frozen in fear. Atsushi, the retired undertaker, would take them out of the plastic and speak to each body with compassion. He’d say, “You must be so cold and lonely, but your family is going to come for you soon…” Then he would get on his knees and gently massage the body to relax into a peaceful posture. And then every time a body was claimed by a family member, the workers at that morgue would line up with their heads bowed in prayerful respect.[2]

He may have been a Buddhist, a different religion entirely, but what Atsushi believed and what the Jewish psalmist and Tobit believed were not that far apart – bodies are sacred. Bodies matter. Bodies matter to God.

Which, following in the footsteps of the Jewish faith, has also become a core inherited belief for us as Christians. As the Apostle Paul would put it from our reading from 1 Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit within you?” Which is not to say that your body is something to be preserved and protected and kept clean. This is not to say that your body is like a church sanctuary, which so many of us view as a place where we aren’t supposed to yell or run or bring in snacks or drinks out of fear that we might spill them and somehow ruin the sanctity of this space. It is, however, to say that your body is a temple, meaning a house of God. Meaning that God lives inside you. In your body. You carry the divine with you. Wherever you go. Bodies matter to God. As Christians, we do not simply believe that bodies are the very art sculpted by God’s hand, but that because of what we have seen in the story of Jesus, in the flesh is where God has chosen to live.

Which is what Jesus asks of us as followers – our flesh, our bodies to be used in such a way that they bring about more light and life, peace and justice into the places where we are. Notice that when Jesus called Philip as a disciple, he didn’t say, “Believe in me, Philip, with all your heart.” He didn’t say, “Worship me, Philip, with your spirit.” No, Jesus said, “Follow me.” As in, “Let’s go. Move your legs. We’ve got work to do.” Which Philip figured out pretty quickly, because it wasn’t long before he was on the move to find Nathanael. And when Nathanael was a little skeptical about this Jesus guy, Philip echoed Jesus when he said, “Come and see.” As in, “Let’s go. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”

“Follow me,” Jesus said. “Come and see,” Philip said. That is body talk.

As people of God, we are called to keep an eye out not only for how bodies, both young and old, healthy and ill, are cared for and respected, but also for how we might use our bodies as an act of faith.

I was struck by how close to 2 million people chose to speak with their bodies this week. This past week, after the violent shootings in Paris, France, 2 million people took to the streets of Paris as a sign of peace and unity. It showed that the entire nation and world was grieving with them in light of the violent attack. People of all ages, and nationalities, and religions gathered together to speak with one voice, as they called for peace and unity. 50 world leaders came together in Paris to march in solidarity with the people. One woman proclaimed, “We are united – Muslims, Catholics, Jews, we want to live peacefully together.”[3]

People could have sent cards or flowers or prayers. But instead they sent their bodies. To stand together in grief and solidarity and peace.

When Jesus says, “Follow me”, he isn’t concerned about your soul, but with your body. And how we use it for the sake of this world. Just how God shows up in the flesh of Jesus to bring us hope beyond hope and grace and upon grace, so Jesus calls you and me to be hope in the flesh. To use our hands and our feet and the words from our lips to help and to heal rather than to hurt and harm.

And the truth is, you already do. You already do bring hope to people in the flesh. I’ve seen and heard about it as you care for an entire household of sick kids, or when you helped a person get to their car after they ran out of gas on a cold day. Or when you wrote a check with your hand to help someone pay their heat bill.

You already do these things in so many ways. But what I hope you’ll see is these are the very ways that God is born into the world through your body. If you carry God in your body, then wherever you are, there is the potential for God to be born in that place. For hope to be born in that place. For light and life to flourish there. At work, at home.

When we forget that bodies matter to God, then we tend to treat them as if they don’t matter. When we forget that what we do each and every day with our bodies matters to God, we tend treat the work we do as if it doesn’t matter and makes no difference, We tend to forget that we have a calling and a purpose in this life. And that what we do matters to God.

So hear these words from Scripture again so that they can sink deeply into your bodies and transform the way you see and live: God made you, God knit you together in the warm darkness of your mother’s womb. Your body is a temple; God has chosen to live inside you. And now, Jesus has something to say to you and that sacred body of yours: follow me. You have been called into a life that will seek hope and love and justice in this life.

So where will you show up this week as hope in the flesh? At work, with that stingy co-worker? In the lunchroom, when you sit with the kid nobody sits with. At home, when you take a deep breath and respond to the conflict in the family with compassion instead of anger? Or when you show up to visit someone in grief even though you don’t know what to say or where to look or how to act?

Whatever you do, know this: it matters to God. You matter to God. Amen

[1] Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long, The Good Funeral, pg. 90-91.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/11/paris-france-anti-terror-rally-massive-show-unity

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