July 28, 2013

Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Week VII – Fear of the Lord


Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 12
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
July 28, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
“Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Week VII – Fear of the Lord”

This summer, we’ve been hearing and thinking about Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit:
 Wisdom … Understanding … Counsel … the Knowledge of the Lord …
       Fortitude … Piety.
Now we come to last on the list:  ... the Fear of God.

Again, these are gifts -- things God gives us to serve him and to be the Church.
Gifts given -- not meant to go unused or otherwise wasted.
We hear it outright in today’s gospel lesson,
 Which for me is a beautiful summation of the past several weeks:
   Jesus, speaking about prayer, and saying,
   “If you ... know how to give good gifts to your children,
     How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
But how is fear a gift? And why would you ask for it?

I suspect we hear that phrase -- “the Fear of God” -- and we possibly have one of three reactions:
 ... one: Wait a minute -- God is out to get me? Like the Boogeyman?
 ... or two: All well and good, but I plan to spend all my fear on the real stuff --
     Cancer and bill collectors and tax collectors and public officials!
       And God can have whatever fear is left over.
 ... or three -- and perhaps especially for Episcopalians this is the case:
     Well, Father, how can you fear something you’ve spent your life hearing about
     As being a force for goodness and love,
     Like some fuzzy-bearded ol’ grandpa?
     I mean really -- who’s afraid of a benign do-gooder?

We really have to begin by asking ourselves,
 What even is this fear? And again, how is it a gift? How can I use it for God’s kingdom?
Well ... let’s start for a moment, as we have done in previous weeks,
 By considering first what it is not.

There’s a game you can play: it’s called Greatest Fear.
As the title implies, it isn’t a very fun game, but it is illuminating.
You sit down with someone and you look him or her in the eye and you say,
 “What’s your greatest fear?”
The person doing the asking doesn’t get
 To stop, or interpret, or judge, or clarify, or diagnose the other person as bonkers;
 And the person doing the answering can’t be anything less than 100% honest.
You say, “What’s your greatest fear?”
The person across from you may say something like,
 “Losing my job,” or “Losing my family,” or “Losing my faith,” or “Losing my health.”
Then you say Thank you, and you try to mean it,
 And then you take a breath and you say, again, “What’s your greatest fear?”
And the person digs a little deeper and speaks into the question again:
 “Being exposed as a fraud,” or “Dying alone,” or “Becoming an alcoholic,”
   Or “Being separated from my spouse.”
Then you say Thank you again,
 And then you take another breath and you say, “What’s your greatest fear?”
And the person makes one last run at it:
 “Losing interest in my work,” or “Not measuring up to my family’s expectations,”
   Or, “Going broke and into bankruptcy and surrendering everything.”
And you say Thank You one last time, and you mean it.
Once you’re finished, it will seem vaguely cleansing and refreshing to you
   That the other person was able to put all this into language,
   ... And then it’ll be your turn to answer the question, and suddenly you’ll have a new fear!

I suspect there is a parallel of this game that could be played out in our more honest churches:
 What’s Your Greatest Fear About God?

“What’s your greatest fear about God?”
That God keeps close accounts; that I will be judged and come up short, and sent to hell
 Because I was just not a good enough person.
“Thank you. What’s your greatest fear about God?”
That all the fundamentalists and biblical literalists are right
 And everything I figured out for myself was wrong.
“Thank you. What’s your greatest fear about God?”
That God knows how selfish I am, and covetous of what I think is mine when it’s really his.
“Thank you. What’s your greatest fear about God?”
That I will have wasted what time and talent God gave me,
 And then it will be too late.
“Thank you. What’s your greatest fear about God?”
That it’s all an elaborate ruse; that there is no God; that nothing happens to you after you die;
 That whatever you see right now is all there ever is.
“Thank you.”

As I say: maybe it feels good to get it all out on the table.
But how far does that kind of self-talk really get you, anyway?
Each of those points of fear so named
 Sounds to me like a place where people find convenient reasons
 To get stuck in their faith lives and lose momentum --
   Spin their wheels, run out of gas, quit the journey.
Fear points.

Do you notice, though, that each of those points is essentially an intellectual issue?
That God knows this or that about me, or that I know too much?
Or at the very least is frittering about things over which I have no control?
To really understand the Fear of God,
 We need to be able to move beyond concepts and ideas. Get out of our heads.
And that’s hard to do in a sermon built on words.

Do you know the poem by Walt Whitman about the lecturing professor of astronomy?

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Did you hear the turn? The “rising and gliding” part?
The movement from a rattletrap busy mind to the quiet witness of the night stars?
The failure of words to express something so basic? Falling mute is a key part of it.

In Dante’s epic poem of the early 14th century, The Divine Comedy,
 The poet travels through Hell and Purgatory until he finally reaches Paradise,
 And from there he tries for the uppermost parts of Heaven.
He describes everything he sees in perfect detail.
He ascends, ascends -- makes this fantastic journey to see God,
 But what he sees, there at the vault of the universe, he cannot describe no matter how he tries.
Wanting to give words to the nature of Jesus Christ,
 He says, “That was not a flight for my wings.”
Then he is given a tiny sliver of a moment’s insight into the all-unifying love of God,
 But he has to admit -- it’s too much for even the world’s greatest poet to wrap his tongue around.
Trust me, he says: What I have seen ...
 Well, it’s “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,”
 And that’s about the best I can do.
 In other words, whatever it was that I saw, it was good.
Dante was one of the best wordsmiths ever to grace the earth. It may be the best any of us can do:
 Whatever it was, it was good.

“I will again do
  Amazing things with this people,
  Shocking and amazing,” the Lord says in Isaiah.
“The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
  and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”

The proper fear of God is the proper reverence and awe of God.
It shuts down our mouths and takes us out of our heads and into a different state.
It is standing in sheer wordless wonder before God.
And that’s a far different-sounding note than cowering in the corner,
 Begging for your life, like in the exercise “What’s Your Greatest Fear?”
Awe and wonder and reverence: you would be a little bit terrified,
 But that terror wouldn’t be everything:
 It would be simply acknowledging that something beyond scope and comprehension
   Had turned its gaze upon us.

In no fewer than three places, the Bible says that
 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
One psalm says that “The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.”
These, clearly, are not necessarily fears of God about being immediately judged or destroyed,
 But rather just recognizing the order of things --
   That we are in the presence of a holiness that is both more than us
   And that at the same time reaches in to completely include us.
That shocks us with its love of us.
Not because we’re worthy and deserve it;
 Not because we aren’t worthy and are terrible wretches;
 But because God wants to be union with the world he made,
   And the world, finally recognizing these things, stands in reverent amazement.

Suddenly we are Moses, before a burning bush, and the voice of God is telling us,
 “Do not come any closer!
   Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
We are Peter and James and John, witnessing the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain,
 And we have nothing productive to add,
 But we feel so overwhelmed and astonished that one of us has to say something,
   So we manage to ask a crazy question about building some tents.
We are the earliest church of Jesus-followers, assembled in one place
 Out of unhealthy fear for the local authorities,
   When the Lord God Almighty rains the Holy Spirit down upon us,
     And in the mass of confusion and language in the moment,
     We understand our work to have been profoundly blessed by God.
We are the High Priest entering the Temple and the heart of it, the Holy of Holies once a year,
 On the Day of Atonement,
   And offering incense upon the Ark of the Covenant and the mercy seat.
We are Thomas, shown the wounds of Jesus upon his blessed body,
 And finding no other words for what we see, only able to mutter out an exclamation:
   “My Lord and my God!”

One of my favorite moments of reverence in all the Bible is this simple one.
Jacob, who has secured the blessing of his father Isaac over his brother Esau,
 Is now on the run from Esau.
He has really nowhere to hide; it doesn’t look good for him.
He is filled with unhealthy fear -- fear for his life.

That’s where we pick it up:

“Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran.
   He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set.
 Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.
 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven;
   And the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
 And the Lord stood beside him and said,
   ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac;
     The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring;
     And your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth,
     And you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south;
     And all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go,
   And will bring you back to this land;
     For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
   ‘Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!’
 And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place!
   This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’

“So Jacob rose early in the morning,
 And he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar
   And poured oil on the top of it.
 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
 Then Jacob made a vow, saying,
   ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go,
     And will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear,
     So that I come again to my father’s house in peace,
       Then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar,
       Shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’”

It’s easy to see Jacob, trembling in the light of the new day,
 Shaking with fear and reverence for the blessing he had received -- the vision seen.

And that reverence, that awe and wonder and astonishment and amazement --
 This is what we call the Fear of God.
It is the gift of God to us: not to be controlled; but to be enjoyed as often as it may happen,
 That we may be a great light to others.

A gift, for us to use as the church.
To open a little door into a wider world,
 Where at any moment we might find ourselves saying,
   “Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!”
The recognition that God Is In This Place (whatever place that happens to be);
 That the ground on which we stand is holy; that deep truth has been revealed;
 That “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Deep down, we all want that and need it --
 The Holy of Holies, the mount of Transfiguration, the burning bush.
If we don’t find it, we may go off, consciously or unconsciously, and seek it some place else.

But the truth is, it’s wherever we look; it’s wherever we gather.
It’s wherever the Church is the Church.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And I know this much: it’s here, and now.


Lorienne E Schwenk said...

Thank you. I visited another church this morning where the readings were off (no explanation was given for tweaking the RCL) and a simplistic sermon on the Lord's Prayer (after not hearing that reading) left me unfed. I feel better now!

The Rev. Torey Lightcap said...


Thanks for the note! You may want to see sermons from previous weeks in this series:



Knowledge of God