Fear and Love sermon: Psalm 111

A sermon I preached back in February on fear and love. With all that’s been going on the world lately, it speaks into the joys and challenges of this springtime as well. 

Psalm 111: Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

There are many sermons that can be preached out of this Psalm, but it’s those last couple of lines that have really spoken to me this week. “Holy and awesome is God’s name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. God’s praise endures forever.” The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Hmmm. What are we to make of that?

We have plenty of fear in our world. We find ourselves afraid of all sorts of people – Muslims, poor people, black people, gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer people, disabled people, people who don’t speak English. They are different and so we are afraid. There are things we rightly fear – gun violence, environmental degradation, natural disasters — and then there are those that are hyped up by one side or the other to get us to go along with the program.

I read an article this week that suggested that we have made an idol of fear. I can see that. We put our fear front and center. We feed our fear, nourish our neuroses, insist on a vision of the world where something out there has its reason for being to GET ME.

Enh. It’s hard to say. Sometimes there’s a good reason to fear. Sometimes not. The hard part is in the telling. But with God – let’s go back to these words . . .

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. How do we make sense of this image of God? Some of us grew up with a sense of God as the punisher – kind of like Santa Claus, keeping track of what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong. Oop, put him down for Hell. Look at what she did – straight into the firey pit for her. This one, well . . . not good, but he gets another chance. Naughty and nice. The great school principal in the sky. Power, authority, command. That’s a fearful thing. That’s one familiar image.

But that’s not really the sense of God that I tend to carry around with me these days. That seems too much like making God over in our own image. It’s like something we can think up, that we can get our heads around and so we go with it, figuring it must fit.

I tend to think of God as a bit more transcendent than that. Most of us here know God in a bit of a more nuanced way.  There’s this other image of God that we talk about that we often make a little easier to take. We see God as love. Love incarnate. The God who is with us always, sustaining us, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, connecting us. I’m good with that. God as the abiding presence of love and light in our lives, that which casteth out fear.

But what then do we make of this fear bit? If God is love, then where does fear come into the equation?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Let’s take a step back and think about the context for a moment.

We all know Psalms is an incredibly popular book in the Bible. Even when people don’t bother to reprint the entire Old Testament, you’ll still find editions that have the New Testament and the Psalms. There’s a Psalm picked each and every week for the lectionary readings. Psalms are songs – some of praise, some of lament, some of thanksgiving. What makes them particularly interesting, however, is that this is the one place in the Bible totally focused on humans talking to God rather than on the word of God as directed to humans. The Psalms are a human depiction, a human response to God. They’re a prayer, an offering up to God.

This makes sense, for this ancient author, this singer of songs, to speak of fear. It’s a part of human experience. What we have here a human author telling us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.

We know that we are afraid. All of us. It seems to be the human condition. So what happens when we dare to gaze toward God and to let our hearts take it all in?

I once stood on a empty beach with someone. It was night time in a state park. It was dark and still, with no lights around. You could look up into the clear sky and see more stars than you ever thought possible. The sky was HUGE. The person I was standing with said: I don’t like this. It makes me feel very small.

I had a bit of a different take on it. My thought was I LIKE this because it reminds me that I’m very small.

We are the heroes of our own story, right? We are the center of our own narratives. There’s not really anything wrong with that – because that’s simply the way we see the world. But it can be too easy to go from there to seeing ourselves as THE center of THE story. We can forget that we’re not truly right smack in the middle of the story of all creation. So it can actually be a good thing to step back and get a little perspective, a bit of humility, a bit of a reminder that greater things than our own narrative are at play. We ARE small. But is that a bad thing?

Can we take all this — this sense of living in this world, with all of the fear that comes with it, this sense of being the center of the story and yet miniscule within the universe — can take we our encounter with God and all of the reactions we have to that moment? Can we take all of this swirl of encounter and emotion and end up in a useful place?

I tell you, these days it often seems like the swirl is what makes the news. We get battered by
tornadoes of chaos and corruption, of
retribution and resentment, of
pronouncements and propaganda.

It’s a whirlwind.

In the midst of it all, is it possible that fear could be a good thing? That it could be a still small place? That it could lead to wisdom? Not that we get stuck there, paralyzed. But that fear stops us in our tracks, just for a moment.

Can we get away from this image of fear as something that compels obedience and instead think of it as a response to something awesome – like “OH. WOW,” where our first our first response may be for our eyes to open wide.

It strips away all of our artifice and our illusions of that we should put our faith in the shiny, glittery things of this earth. It’s a signal to take this stuff seriously.  One of my all time favorite quotes comes from the writer Annie Dillard – she says

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …  It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

Crash helmets. Yep. Makes sense to me. People invoke God all the time, for all sorts of ends and causes — and sometimes I wonder if we really have a sense of the gravity of what we do.

I think, however, that this ties back around to our vision of God as love. This is not a sappy sweet love that simply approves of everything. We’ll see plenty of that image in these next couple of weeks in the run up to Valentine’s Day.

Instead, we’re offered – called to – a rigorous view of love as a practice, as something we are called to enact and make manifest throughout the experiences of our days.

We share in the power of God. We act as the hands and feet on God on this earth. We can act entirely in and of ourselves – or we can let God flow through us. Is that a bit intimidating? Umm, yeah. It is an awesome responsibility. In our own human imperfection, there’s no way we can live up to it every single moment of every single day. But it is given to us, this task. It’s kind of scary. We are right to approach it with some caution. Fear is the beginning of wisdom, but faith is its ongoing sustenance.

Such an understanding requires humility on our part. We come humbly to the task. But we also come with the confidence of a child of God. So we rightly acknowledge the fear. Fear may stop us in our tracks.

But only for an instant. Because courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s persistence in spite of fear. So we stop. Humbled. Amazed. And then we are equipped to move forward. That’s the faith part.

We are afraid to love. And maybe rightly so. It is dangerous work. It takes us out of our comfort zones. It calls us beyond our daily routines of engagement with people who look like us and think like us. We can be much more comfortable resting in the image of an authoritarian God (who happens to agree with us) than in one who calls upon us to love.

Fear is the beginning of something. It’s not meant to be an end unto itself. We’re not supposed to take the fear of God – or of anything else – and make it into its own idol. It’s a starting point. And we can start in fear and rely on the things of this world and end up in hatred and suspicion. Or we can start in fear and remember that the object is God and end up in wisdom. We go from fear to wisdom to praise.

Holy and awesome is God’s name.