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"Koinonia" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - June 3, 2018

posted Jun 4, 2018, 1:49 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Earlier this week something in the news caught my attention; no, not Roseanne Barr. The National Spelling Bee took place in Maryland, with hundreds of youth competing for the trophy of top speller. 14-year old Karthik Nemmani of McKinney, Texas, won the honors; but all the youth amazed me. As much as I like to read, they spelled words I didn’t even know.

At the penultimate moment, a previous winner misspelled Bewusstseinslage. I had to look that one up; a loan word from German that means a state of consciousness lacking in sensory awareness. To use it in a sentence, “She claimed Ambien caused her Bewusstseinslage.”

But other words were as difficult, like glossodynia, a “burning sensation in mouth.” This word describes a medical condition. I found several related terms at the Mayo Clinic site: orodynia, oral dysaesthesia, and glossopyrosis. I get the drift of all these derived from Greek; perhaps we could coin a new one, “Her tweet seemed glossopyracist.”

Another new word I learned: triturate, as in to crush. And in a sentence, “The tweet triturated her eponymous show.”

And yet, despite all these new words, Karthik won on a word much more familiar to me: koinonia.  It means “spiritual community.” While the word comes to us from Greek, the word itself is not old.  Rather, people created this word in the mid-nineteenth century - in the midst of the Civil War and the industrial revolution - to describe both what they experienced in church and what they longed for: koinonia, community.

Could there be a better word for 2018? For in this age of tweets, this era of online trolls, what could be better than koinonia? To know that we are not alone? To feel, in the depths of our hearts, we belong?

Biblical scholars often attempt to reimagine the sitz im leben of a scriptural passage. (This is just a German way of saying the situation in life that caused a particular passage to be created.) And when they wonder about the personal experience behind a psalm, scholars zero in on those most disturbing verses, the one’s Katie read on our behalf. The vehemence of those passages leads scholars to wonder if the author experienced some unjust accusation; perhaps denounced for idolatry. Scholars hear that in the closing line, when the psalmist appeals to God, “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The accused person is throwing themselves on the mercy of God.

Faced with an accusation by the community, the person felt themselves excluded, cut off, set outside polite society. Scholars hear this in the strident lines of the majority of the psalm, which proclaim over and over, “No matter what, God is with me.” Scholars hear that and add the unspoken conclusion, “No matter what, God is with me (even when it feels like everyone else is against me).”

The person who wrote our psalm experienced an utter lack of koinonia. Or, we might say, anakoinonia (uncommunity). The psalmist wrote as one slandered and shunned, one made to feel other and outcast.

As I thought about this sitz im leben of the psalm, I found myself thinking of both Roseanne Barr and the person her tweet attacked, Valerie Jarrett. If Biblical scholars are right, then the situation of either woman could be similar to that of the author of the psalm.

It may be easier for us to see Valerie Jarrett’s situation as akin to the author of that psalm. The tweet slandered her, drawing on 500 years of white supremacy to pillory Jarrett. Anyone in such a situation would long for koinonia. And Jarrett herself said as much, “First of all, I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defense.” When someone tries to publicly shame us, as Roseanne tried to do with Jarrett, then we especially need the assurance of community. To see the psalmist as like Jarrett can make us sympathetic to the author; we understand and feel the injustice of the exclusion.

But we could also see Roseanne Barr as reflective of the situation behind this psalm. Roseanne said something disgustingly cruel for the way it echoed racist tropes. And then the swift reaction caught her off guard, leaving her cut off from community. One can imagine her surprise. After all, she sang the national anthem while grabbing her privates and no one protested (unlike Colin Kaepernick, who respectfully took a knee to honor victims of police shootings and touched off an ongoing controversy). And more recently, Roseanne Barr made a similar racist remark against Susan Rice and suffered no backlash. So apparently Barr thought she could make another comment comparing a prominent African-American leader to a beast. And now - behind all the apologies to try to regain her standing - one senses Roseanne feels persecuted herself. (Which may be why, when the Ambien excuse failed, Roseanne turned to other excuses, claiming she thought Jarrett was white, then Persian, then Jewish.) Seeing the author of the psalm as like Roseanne may make us far less sympathetic.

And yet, whether the psalmist was like Jarrett or like Barr, I think the psalm operates as an expression of transforming grace. Even those most troubling verses, those verses we so often skip, speak to how God’s grace can work in our lives to bring us back into koinonia (community). So think of Jarrett, or Barr, or someone else who feels judged and excluded from community as we delve a bit deeper into this psalm.

I treasure this psalm - one of my favorites - because of the first eighteen verses, the verses we normally read; and in fact, when I pray, I turn to these verses for my own language.  he power of these verses comes from the very personal way the author speaks of the relationship with God.

It begins with the opening verses: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” And some translators feel we could even intensify this very personal address to God, saying, “You, you know…”

And in this very personal address, the psalmist makes clear how well God knows us. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely.” To be so fully known is both wonderful and, if we’re honest, awkward. It means something far more than that God understands how we feel; God knows before we even know. God knows the truth of who we are before we do. We remain in the dark about the patterns in our lives, but God sees them. How does it feel to have someone know the truth of our life before we do?

Many people who have come out as LGBT have had an experience where you share this deep discovery about who you are only to have someone say, “I knew already.” When it happens to me, I feel like, “wait a minute, this is my big moment.” And yet, the person knew. It happened to me years ago when I came out to my brother. There was a lot of family drama before I told him; but when I finally did, he’d already known. First, his wife always suspected; turns out being a teenage boy with a favorite china pattern was a wee bit of a giveaway. And then he’d seen a book at my parent’s house, “When your Son comes out.” It all stole my thunder.

And yet, to be known this way is also comforting. Because it’s the friend who can read a thousand words in just one of your looks; the one who knows your silences and each of your hundred smiles.  God knows us this completely.

The psalm then repeats this affirmation of God’s knowledge by speaking of the impossibility of fleeing God’s sight. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (That poetic verse imagines us rising with the Sun in the east - the wings of morning - and traversing the Earth ‘til we set in the west - settle at the farthest limits of the sea.) No matter where we go, God goes with us. And even more, God is with us in the places we never imagined we go.

This leads to a revelation: the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, the God who goes with us wherever we go, can see beyond all our pretentious: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.”

God’s amazing knowledge allows the psalmist to speak some of the most profound words: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Wonderfully, fearfully made. To speak this way is to name the full range of our possibilities, to accept both the grandeur and the grittiness of our humanity, to know our beauty and our shadows.

I think all of these beautiful verses act as a prelude to the awfully honest words we tend to avoid. But it is only after the psalmist says God knows us better than we know ourselves, only after the psalmist says God goes with us even to places we can’t imagine, only after the psalmist realizes our identity as wonderfully, fearfully made, that the awfully honest feeling can be faced. And to really hear those words, it helps to think of the psalmist as either Valerie Jarrett or Roseanne Barr.  What is the awful truth both have a hard time naming?

Jarrett spoke about this tweet with great dignity; as I quoted earlier, she said, “I’m fine.” Her words were calm, dispassionate, poised even. But I noticed more what went unsaid. Her hurt.  Her anger. Her grief. Many commentators suggested what Roseanne Barr said could be seen as a sign of the state of race relations in America; but I think more was disclosed by what could not be said. Jarrett had to follow the advice of countless parents as to what to do in the face of white supremacy: stay calm. And yet surely a part of her wanted to scream when Roseanne referred to her as a beast.

I know Jarrett can’t say publicly what she really thinks of Roseanne Barr; but surely God knows. And likewise, this psalm, this prayer, gave voice to the thoughts the author dares not speak; the thoughts only God could discern; the pain only God could see. Can we be so revealingly honest in our prayers, naming our rawest emotions before God? Can we name in prayer the pain and grief which keeps us from koinonia?

But these most troubling verses can also be heard as the words of Roseanne Barr. Because the psalm speaks to the truth we can’t face about ourselves. Roseanne - despite apologizing to try to save the tatters of her reputation - has kept retweeting conspiracy theories about this.

Perhaps the psalmist did much the same, adopting a tone of self-righteous indignation. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” But then comes the real question hidden in another self-righteous proclamation, “See if there is in me any wicked way.”

I read once of a reporter who went to witness a rally for a brand-new confederate monument in the South. She wrote, “Most of the attendees were so polite, and so eager to tell me that the Confederate legacy was divorced from slavery, that it reminded me of the peculiarity of racial relations in America, where a person who has racist beliefs believes himself to be absolved if he doesn’t consider himself racist.” Just as those raising the Confederate statues don’t see themselves as racist, Roseanne doesn’t seem to recognize the racism behind her comment. (And I suspect that is why Roseanne is now trying to say she thought Valerie Jarrett was white.)

But God - who knows our thoughts - can indeed see what we don’t want to see about ourselves. And so, when we pray to God - “Try me and know my thoughts.” - God must just be thinking, “I find you trying indeed.” Perhaps praying this psalm can move us to know those truths we don’t want to see about ourselves. To know the truth about what keeps us from living more fully into koinonia.

The psalms are sometimes called the “Prayer book of the Bible.” Not just because it contains 150 prayers, but because it teaches us how to pray. What if we learned to pray like Psalm 139 - affirming of course that we are not alone because we live in God’s world and then allow that promise of koinonia to move us to a deep honesty about the feelings we hide, sometimes even hide from ourselves? Alleluia and Amen.


  • Feasting on the Word

  • Okeowo, Alexis, “Witnessing a Rally for a Brand New Confederate Monument,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2017.

  • Wang, Amy B., “Champion crowned at Scripps National Spelling Bee from record-breaking field,” Washington Post, June 1, 2018