by Christian McIvor; Psalm 139 1.6, 13-18 and John 1. 43-51
Gravity is an interesting phenomenon. Not only is it the force that constantly pulls us toward the earth and keeps us from being flung off the planet into deep space, but it also pulls all bodies toward each other. As much as the earth pulls on us, we also pull back. From the particle to the galactic level and beyond, it’s a force of attraction that exists between all objects, everywhere in the universe. Gravity creates stars and planets by pulling together the material from which they are made. The gravitational pull of the moon pulls the seas towards it, giving us the rhythm of the ocean tides. Gravity is what keeps the moon in orbit around Earth, keeps the planets in orbit around the Sun, and keeps our solar system spinning around the center of the Milky Way. Gravity keeps us circling through the seasons of our lives and gives us the music of the spheres. But for all we can observe about how gravity behaves and operates as a field of influence in the universe, we still don’t know what it “is” in any fundamental way. We can’t escape it and we can’t explain it directly, but we know it’s there and we trust it to keep our feet on the ground and keep reliable patterns in motion, holding everything together in our experience of reality.
In Psalm 139, which can be considered an individual hymn of thanksgiving, the psalmist is pulling God close in the realization that God is an inescapable field of influence. There is no running from a God who has searched and known the psalmist completely. This sense of being entirely known is emphasized by the psalmist’s use of merisms in verses 2 and 5. A merism is a rhetorical allusion in which the whole of an idea is implied by referencing its polar extremes, like “we searched high and low.” The psalmist states, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You hem me in, behind and before.” The psalmist is beginning to recognize that the pull of God is present in every movement and every moment, that there is nothing outside of God, the Creator, and the psalmist is pulling back in prayer. “You knit me together… I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance… I come to the end – I am still with you.” The psalmist is coming to understand their identity as a known and loved creation of God. Just as an architect understands a building that she has designed – or as an artist knows a painting or sculpture that he has created – God intimately knows all of God’s wonderful works. God is the psalmist’s maker and the maker of all – the giver and holder of all of life and all of time.
This sense the psalmist gives of God’s presence across the whole of time and space, with the use of extremes to describe it – before the psalmist was formed and at the end of their being and understanding – makes me wonder about their concept of time. Ever since Keith’s sermon a few weeks ago about calling on the ancestors, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of time. We generally think of and experience time in a linear sense, with clear beginning and end points to events. But when we shift our frame of reference, we see that time is also cyclical – there are regular cycles and rhythms present throughout our natural world and the entire universe. Life on this planet operates and is driven by daily, tidal, weekly, seasonal, and annual cyclical rhythms, all of which are governed in some way by gravity. Gravity gives us predictable patterns and routines in our lives, and it offers the promise of eternal rebirth and renewal, just as spring always follows winter. It offers us continual possibilities to become aware of God’s pull and reciprocate again and again.
While the language in this psalm suggests that the psalmist has done their best to stray from God, ultimately, they’ve realized that the inescapable gravity of God is the force that keeps them as well as everything and everyone else in motion. In feeling and responding to the pull of God by pulling back, the psalm writer is coming to know God better and therefore coming to know their own deepest self better. This leads them to become willing to be vulnerable and open themselves to wherever this God is taking them, with confidence that there is no separation.
In his book, Tales of the Hasadim, early 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber offered these words concerning the reciprocal yet unitive relationship between God and humankind:
Where I wander – You!
Where I ponder – You!
Only You, You again, always You! You! You! You!
When I am gladdened – You! When I am saddened – You!
Only You, You again, always You! You! You! You!
Sky is You, Earth is You!
You above! You below!
In every trend, at every end,
Only You, You again, always You!
You! You! You!
Again, and again, over and over, to the farthest reaches of the universe and deep within, we are gifted the opportunity to witness and align ourselves in and with the presence of God. To me, the psalmist’s decision to pull back upon feeling the centrality, nearness, and pull of God echoes the Hindu concept of Atman, which is Sanskrit for the inner self, spirit, or soul. Atman is the universal Self, or the eternal core of the personality. In many Hindu traditions, liberation from suffering can only be attained when an individual realizes that Atman – the Self – and Brahman – the Absolute, or God – are identical. The decision to pull back on the God that resides within results in freedom.
We see this at work in today’s Gospel text, only instead of Atman, it’s the Christ within that Philip and Nathanael are coming to know when Jesus reaches out to them and they reach back. At the very beginning of the passage, Jesus decides to go to Galilee to find Philip. Just before this, Jesus had been hanging out with his first followers in Bethany. So, Jesus just decides to up and go about 80 miles to search out Philip, says, “Follow me,” and BAM! Philip immediately responds to the call by witnessing to Nathanael, telling him that the one they’ve been waiting for – their messiah – has come! We find out in chapter 21 that Nathanael is from Cana, which is right next to Nazareth. So, while his response, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” might be interpreted these days as particularly prejudiced or bigoted in some way, it might be better thought of as a young man taking a shot at what he perceives to be a neighboring rival town – the Shelbyville to his Springfield. Undeterred, Philip (who has been known by and now knows Jesus) invites Nathanael to “Come and see” the Christ for himself. To his credit, even though he initially resists, Nathanael accepts the invitation to go and see. When Jesus sees Nathanael, he describes him as a truth-teller. Surprised, Nathanael asks, “Where did you get to know me?” Well, of course Jesus knows Nathanael. In John’s gospel, Jesus is the Word, through which all things came into being and were given life and light. He’s literally the stuff that makes up and holds Nathanael (and all things) together, and just as God knows the psalmist, Jesus knows Nathanael. Jesus doesn’t say all this, but just tells Nathanael that he saw him under the fig tree before Philip called him. Elsewhere in the Bible, the fig tree is used to symbolize Israel, and several Rabbinic texts equate gathering figs with studying the Torah, perhaps suggesting Nathanael’s status as a student. Maybe this is what speaks to Nathanael’s heart and snaps things into focus for him, but whatever it is specifically, Nathanael’s faith overcomes his suspicion and he declares Jesus to be his teacher, Son of God, and King of Israel. Upon accepting the invitation to relationship with Jesus, Nathanael realizes how deeply he is known, bringing him to know Jesus and therefore also his own essential nature better – he becomes consciously aware of his true identity in Christ. Jesus travels 80 miles, pulling himself toward Philip and Philip toward him, and Philip responds by pulling Nathanael in. And just like that, the Jesus movement continues to spread. As more disciples join, the pull becomes greater, drawing more and more into this community that’s in a kind of orbit, with Christ at the center. The gravity of God’s love is always pulling us to Christ and Christ to each of us, calling us to respond by witnessing in word and deed.
I continue to understand the idea of “calling” in different ways. If I’m honest with myself – and I’d hope that I’m not alone here – I can admit that not every moment of my life is necessarily spent answering the call of Jesus, especially lately. During this time of COVID when I’ve been operating primarily remotely, distractions seem to come much more easily. While I honestly have loved spending more time with my family, for someone who operates better with structure and routine and enjoys being around other people, I’ve found it hard to stay attuned to the light at times and felt disconnected, especially with all of the hatred and injustice we’ve continued to see across our country. Adjusting my own personal prayer and spiritual reading routines has helped reorient me, but especially our weekly cycle of College Park staff meetings, Bible and book studies, Sunday morning conversations, and the opportunity to help design virtual worship every week has reminded me again and again that the gravity of God is always pulling me close and inviting me to willfully pull back.
I used to think of “answering the call” as some kind of supernatural transformation that forever changes people going forward, a one-and-done kind of thing, and typically related to vocation. That may be how some experience it, but I know that for me, it’s cyclical – each new day is a chance to “come and see,” to answer that invitation by centering Christ in my personal spiritual orbit and acting from that awareness. Then, every choice I make becomes an opportunity to live into my calling by witnessing in word and deed, a choice to use my gifts to bring the liberative love of Christ to where it’s needed most. While I’d like to think that I could be a Philip and answer Christ’s call immediately and completely, at all times and without hesitation, I often feel more like Nathanael, and I am thankful for the many opportunities College Park offers to “come and see” the love of Christ again and again, calling all of us into community.
I was first pulled toward College Park in 2008, when I was living directly across from the church on, Walker Ave. I saw the sign out front that said, “College Park Baptist Church Meets Here,” and I saw that the website advertised it as an American Baptist Church “where loving God means loving people.” Upon visiting, I was drawn in. I appreciated how openly embracing the church was of all people – how here, it was a given that each person was fearfully and wonderfully made as a child of God. I particularly liked how one of the church values was to “Encourage a deep Christian curiosity and spiritual openness.” I was a regular for a while, becoming involved in the choir, and Chrissy also started coming after we met. Eventually though, distracted by my professional ambitions and many other things at the time, I stopped coming and the trajectory of my spiritual orbit went off like some crazy comet. A few years later though, Juliette was born, and I felt God pulling me back to College Park. We started attending as a family, and soon enough I realized that Sunday was becoming the best part of my week. In a world that seemed to be encouraging me to run from my own self in pursuit of some undefinable “success,” I was feeling known, loved, and like my truest, best self at College Park. The relationships I had formed were genuine, the worship was making me feel fulfilled, and the sermons were speaking directly to my heart. The idea of answering God’s call to live fully in Christ was becoming more real to me, because I had come and seen it happening in different ways all around me at College Park, whether it be serving as a deacon or on a committee, joining a Sunday School class, singing in the choir, or any other number of ways to bring Christ’s love to the world.
Eventually, I felt God pulling me toward a vocational shift, and for my last 3 trips around the Sun, I’ve had the honor and privilege of responding to that call by pulling back and serving as a minister on staff at this church where every member is a minister. I have had the joy of watching this community’s children and youth grow not only physically, but also as worship leaders, musicians, and Jesus-followers. I have had the pleasure of leading weekly adult choir and handbell choir rehearsals where fellowship and fun are the primary values, leading all of us involved to experience God’s love through each other and resulting in consistently worshipful, excellent musical performances. I’ve enjoyed looking on as Con Brio has developed into a Christian rock band of sorts that can bring a certain freshness to worship. I have treasured the opportunities we’ve had to create intergenerational worship experiences during the Christmas season and for our combined services. I’m glad that the Creation Justice Team was able to come together to start important conversations and create awareness around creation care as a vital aspect of discipleship. I have appreciated opportunities to preach and hope that in doing so I have brought some life and light to you all in different ways. Through our Wednesday night programming, I’m thankful for having had opportunities to learn about getting involved in local advocacy efforts. Through personal and congregation-wide conversations about worship and music, I have had my own theological views expanded. While working in small groups on various projects around the church, I’ve enjoyed having many personal conversations – theological and otherwise – that have helped me grow in my faith. It was at College Park where my personal philosophy of ministry was formed, a philosophy that values creating Beloved Community through a continued commitment to individual and collective transformation, leading to justice brought about by love. Black liberation theologian James Cone suggested that “God is present in all dimensions of human liberation,” and I am grateful to have begun my career in ministry at a church that continually invites us to “come and see” where this liberation is needed most.
In this community of faith, I have continually been made aware of and felt the gravity of God in different ways that have led me to come to know my true self better. College Park has helped pull me toward Christ and pull Christ toward me again and again, and it has helped me learn how to respond to this call by witnessing in such a way that can pull others toward decolonizing our minds, being golden, loving our crooked neighbors with our crooked hearts, and using our voices to create beloved community here on earth. I look forward to using all I have learned here to go inspire a new community to respond to Christ’s call in these same ways.
College Park, for all you have given me and given our family, I offer my sincerest thanks and deepest appreciation. Peace be with all of you as we continue to answer our call to do the best we can to bring Christ’s love to the world without embarrassing Jesus… too much. Amen.