Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
Psalm 139: 1-15
In 2015, Ira Glass from This American Life radio show reported on what they
titled and Norman Rockwell titled his famous painting of Ruby Bridges, The
Problem We All Live With. Glass speaks to the New York Times Magazine reporter
Nikole Hannah-Jones who has done extensive research and reporting on
education and various kinds of school reformations. She mentions there is one
reform most districts have given up on – school integration. Now you might be
thinking, school systems have been integrated for over 50 years, but let’s be
honest, neighborhoods have become just as segregated as before. In this
episode of This American Life, Hannah-Jones stumbles unintentionally across the
segregated Normandy school district that borders Ferguson, Missouri, the same
district Michael Brown attended school. You might remember Michael Brown was
brutally killed by the police in 2014 in Ferguson. And Hannah-Jones, the reporter
could not get his death, this school district, and Brown’s mother’s words out of her
head. His mother said this just feet from where her son was shot down she said,
“You took my son away from me. You know how hard it was for me to get him to
stay in school and graduate? You now how many black men graduate? Not
Many!”1 These words stuck with Hannah-Jones, she could not stop thinking about
them. Why did his mother say those words at his death? And so she went to the
Normandy school district to report on their attempted integration reformation a
year after Brown’s death. She spent a lot of time with a Normandy mother, Nedra
Martin and her daughter Mah’ria. Nedra did everything she could to help her
daughter get a good education and she fought for her to be a part of the new
integration busing system in Normandy, knowing there were more opportunities
available for her daughter across the county. Like in most districts who attempt
integration, the majority white neighborhoods pushed back with micro-racial
aggressions such as confessing a fear of their schools becoming more violent, test
scores going down, a fear of bigger class sizes, and in all the subtle ways of
saying we don’t want those people here. Thank goodness, the district moved
forward with the integration and bussing system. But Nedra, after hearing those
comments at an open house assembly, feared for her daughter’s safety and could
not get the image of Ruby Bridges walking into her school alone out of her mind.
So on the first day of school, Nedra, a mother, followed her daughter to school –
a bus full of black students transferring to a mostly white suburban high school –
to make sure it arrived safely. Now doesn’t that mother, like countless mothers
and parents, remind us of the God that the Psalmist sings about in our Scripture
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 seas,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
Our Psalm today is a song of comfort. It’s a song that takes God who tends
to feel large, bigger than ourselves, distant and moves God to here, in our heart,
in our space – a personal God. This is a God who knows us inside and out, in the
womb and on our death beds. This is a God who is intimate, personable,
unconditionally present in our lives and loves deeply who God beautifully and
wonderfully made – you. Are we able to accept that God is not out here, but in
here? Does that seem difficult for you? How do we understand a God like that a
in world where maybe we’re told we’re not enough? Maybe we don’t feel worthy
enough of God’s presence? Maybe there are things we are ashamed of or never
lived up to in our parent’s eyes. Maybe we’ve been told and internalized we’re
not skinny enough, smart enough, we’re too quiet or too loud. Too positive, too
negative, too busy or too lazy. We’re expected to say all the right words when we
don’t know the right words say. We have to have confidence, but the confidence
can’t turn into ego. Maybe there are things that haunt us, things that go
unspoken, the secrets that leave us in the darkness as the Psalmist says. And a
voice whispering, “you are not enough. You are never enough.” And I’m not
talking about being enough for the world, for strangers, for church or even our
friends and family. I’m talking about being enough for ourselves, for God. We
don’t think we’re enough for God? A God who wove us, who knitted our hearts
strings together. No, we see God working, living, embracing those around us
much easier than we see God inside ourselves.
I can’t help by think about the book, The Color Purple. I’ve used this book
and Broadway production in other sermon images. The main character, Celie
writes a letter to God in the beginning of the novel as if writing to a distant friend
across the country. Understandably, Celie doesn’t see God working in her abusive
relationship, in the grief of losing her children, nor in the loss of her sister. It’s not
until Celie meets her partner and friend, Shug, that she understands God
differently. Shug builds her confidence throughout the story to the point that
Celie grows into herself, into seeing the image of God inside herself that was
there the whole time. And in that shift, her theology changes as well. She no
longer sees God as distant and just a friend, but that God lies in every aspect of
her life – in her relationships, her love, in creation, in the color purple, in herself.
In the Broadway production that had me in tears from the opening lyrics to the
end, Celie finally sings about her relationship with God. She sings,
“God is inside me and everyone else.
That was or ever will be.
I came into this world with God.
And when I finally looked inside.
I found it.
Just as close as my breath is to me.”3
When we think we are not worthy of God’s love and presence. When we’re
told we’re not enough and the world steals something from us without
permission, it’s this Psalms that tells us otherwise. This is a Psalm that says we are
exactly how God made us to be, no more no less. We are known by God. Howard
Thurman, a theologian, “describes this sort of known…as being laid bare, or
stripped of the façade.”4 There’s no hiding ourselves from God. No putting on a
different face or a fake personality. There’s no holding back tears or a burst of
laughter, or the judgmental thoughts, we’ve all had. According to the original
text, we are known, we are seen to our depths, our deepest center, the core of
who we are. And instead of this frightening us, I encourage celebration. An
affirmation that we are all worthy of God’s love and presence, protection and
care. An affirmation that when we are in the depths of doubt, God is still there,
even if we can’t see God, feel God, or want to know God. An affirmation that
when we are in the torments of grief, God isn’t just with those who are happy and
stable, but with you who are hurting – nurturing you, holding you, loving you. And
when we see God in ourselves, it will be much easier to be our authentic selves.
The self that has energy and courage, motivation and true love. You were
hemmed together by God, beautifully and wonderfully made and don’t let
anyone tell you otherwise.