Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 22, 2010
The Word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you;”
I spent some time with God’s words to Jeremiah this week, and at moments they almost moved me to tears, they are so powerful.
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were even born I consecrated you.
The only language we have to talk and think about God is human language based on human experience … that’s probably why some of our best expressions of the divine are not in words but through art and music. The Irish poet John O’Donohue says “music is what language would love to be if it could” and that’s why he felt songs of God were always more profound than his poems of God.
But because we are bounded by human expression, we tend to think of and experience God through the filter of human concepts, particularly our human relationships. And the truth is, even the best of those have limits to their intimacy.
No matter how deeply you love, no matter how much you want to be intimate with someone, there is only so tightly you can embrace someone, only so deeply you can dive into your friend or lover or child’s or parents or sisters or brother’s eyes and they into yours. Even when someone through living and observing and experiencing us in some ways knows us better than we know ourselves, there are still these places inside us that no one else can touch. We can try to tell someone about them or maybe even sing or draw or sculpt or play to try to express them, but no other person will ever fully know them, we know all too well that we will never be fully understood.
And yet we've got this love/hate, approach/avoidance thing going on with that, too. Because part of us craves being fully known, fully understood, but another part of us fears that so deeply and so intensely. Because the other thing about our human relationships is that for all of us from the moment of birth in addition to those wonderful moments of embrace and acceptance there have been so many moments of rejection and condemnation and somehow those are so often the easier ones for us to believe. And the deeper we let someone in to who we really are, yes, the greater the joy will be if the response is knowing and loving and blessing, but the more unbearable the pain will be if the response is that’s bad, or that’s stupid, or that’s ugly. And we’re just too afraid of that.
And so we build walls and hide inside, and maybe we let some people in, but its usually not without a lot of fear and trepidation. We don’t start out that way, we’re born trusting. But we’re such fast learners. We learn to be guarded. We learn not to share ourselves. We learn not to trust. And we teach each other to do it, too. We’ve all seen it happen. Probably most of us have helped do it to others. And certainly all of us have felt it ourselves. Being told we’re not good enough or not lovable on a profound level because we’re too loud or too fat or can’t draw or can’t sing or our skin isn’t the right shade or we’re not attracted to the right people or we don’t dress right or we’re not smart enough or have enough money or hang with the right friends or any number of things we aren’t that we should be or are that we shouldn’t. And each one of those messages strengthens our resolve not to trust, not to let anyone see who we really are, not to know us too deeply. And as we build those walls, sometimes we add spikes on the outside to hurt others before they can get too close to hurt us.
And yet into this world in which we live comes the words of God to Jeremiah. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. And before you were born, I consecrated you.”
What amazing, powerful, and liberating words. That first part, “before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” St. Augustine had this phrase – and it’s so beautiful in the Latin – “Deus intimior intimo meo” “Deus intimior intimo meo” – “God is more intimate to me than I am to myself.” God doesn’t need to reach around the spikes and break through the walls, because God is already there, in the deepest parts of us … and has always been there. We pray this every Sunday “Almighty God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid.” God really does know us better than we know ourselves because God has known us more deeply and longer than we have known ourselves.
And we can feel in ourselves what Jeremiah must have felt hearing these words. At once the incredible joy of being that deeply known. The joy of “God actually KNOWS me.” And then almost immediately the terror. “Oh no, God actually KNOWS ME" Which is why God immediately follows “before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” With “and before you were born I consecrated you.” I not only knew you, God says, I looked at you and said this is good. I blessed you. And I set you aside for something uniquely wonderful, suitable for the unique wonder that is you.
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. And before you were born I consecrated you. These are some of the most powerful words of God in all of scripture, and God says them to Jeremiah because God has an extraordinary job for Jeremiah. God wants Jeremiah to take a message to the people of Israel that they are not going to want to hear. And they are going to try to tear him down and make him doubt himself and think he is lower than dirt and who are you to even tell us what you think much less claim to speak for God. And so God knows Jeremiah needs to hear these words, because God knows Jeremiah is already full of all those messages of self-doubt and rejection and condemnation that he has heard already through his life just by virtue of him living the same human life we do. And so God says to Jeremiah:
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you. And before you were born I consecrated you.
You are good. God says. You are worthy. You are lovable. And, God says, I oughta know. Deus intimior intimo meo. Because I am more intimate to you than you are to yourself.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus comes across a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” Luke says, “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” What a powerful image. Her body has literally been contorted as one who is carrying a giant burden on her back … she is physically bent over. It is the posture of Jesus carrying the cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Its interesting that Luke doesn’t refer to an illness that is besetting her but that she is crippled by a spirit.
This story comes in the middle of a series of stories about how God didn’t just consecrate people like Jeremiah but that God has consecrated all of us to be unique and wonderful vehicles for bringing in the Kingdom of God. For showing the world the joyful, life-changing, trust-building, fear-destroying power of God’s love.
And yet something is keeping this woman from doing this. And as I pictured her bent over in pain, I found myself seeing not an old, grizzled woman, but a woman of about 18 years old. And the spirit that had been crippling her her whole life was the same spirit that cripples all of us, the same spirit that was crippling Jeremiah that caused him to say, “God, are you sure you dialed the right number, because I can’t possibly do this.” The spirit of rejection and condemnation and you’re bad and unlovable and not nearly good enough that builds in each of us and presses down on us more and more as we go through our lives.
As I was thinking of preaching this, I thought about bringing someone up here and putting a backpack on them and one by one loading that backpack with bricks representing all those rejections and condemnations we carry around … and then watch how the person gradually stoops down under the weight. I’ve gotta admit what mostly scared me off of that was worrying about actually hurting someone’s back doing this. But I’ll bet even in describing that, thinking of all those things that are burdening you, you can feel that weight. You can feel your shoulders being pushed down and your spine being bent.
And it was to this woman that Jesus came and said not “you are cured” but “you are set free.” You are liberated. You are free. With a touch, just as God had done with God’s words to Jeremiah, the burden was lifted. She was not whom she had been told she was and wasn’t, but she was once more what she was before the beginning, what God always knew she really was. And what could the woman do now? Do what she was born to do. What she had been consecrated since before birth to do. Stand up straight and praise God.
The late second century bishop and theologian Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is the human being fully alive.” What God did to Jeremiah and what Jesus did to that woman was to make present the glory of God, to bring them fully alive. By knowing them more intimately than they knew themselves and by reminding them of the truth of creation. That even before we were created, God looked at each of us and said, “you are very, very good.”
And Jeremiah went out and proclaimed God’s message to the people. And the woman stood up and praised God. And some people in the synagogue got afraid. But more than that the entire crowd rejoiced, because ultimately that’s all you can do when you are confronted by the glory of God, by a human being fully alive … rejoice and marvel and wonder and praise that same God who has done this marvelous thing.
My friends, this is who we get to be for each other. This is who we get to be for the world. What are the burdens that have you stooped over? What is preventing you and us from standing up straight and praising God? What is preventing all of us from being fully alive? In these stories, God is asking us to trust. To trust that not only does God know us more intimately than we know ourselves but that that is nothing to fear, because we are blessed and consecrated and forgiven and redeemed and above all, loved and very, very, very good. And that each and all of us has a part in revealing the glory of God.
What are the burdens that have you stooped over. What is preventing you and us from standing up straight and praising God? What is preventing all of us from being fully alive? And how can we be like the woman, hearing Jesus call and actually letting him touch her? How can we be like Jesus, seeing one another as the God of Deus intimior intimo meo sees us? How can we be like the crowd … fearlessly rejoicing as we gaze on each other and on a world becoming more fully alive.