Fr. Andrew Armond – The Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2022
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
What do we really FEAR when we FEAR GOD?
A common theme in all of our readings this morning is FEAR. The fear of the Lord, or the idea that what keeps us in line as the people of God is a continuous sense of being on edge, that if we step out of line, we fear the wrath and punishment of God.
It’s not something that many modern Christians think about, outside of some denominations that may use fear as a motivating tactic in a more manipulative way. But that doesn’t mean that the FEAR of the Lord is a bad thing in and of itself.
In fact, I think there are some very real senses in which we need to recover the FEAR of the Lord.
The kind of fear referred to in Isaiah is something that the people of God had lost. It was a sense of God’s holiness, God’s worthiness, God’s OTHERness. The people said to God “Keep to yourself, do not come near me.”
And so, ironically, they had lost the FEAR of the Lord in the sense that they wanted to keep God away. They no longer wanted God to turn God’s gaze upon them, in Holiness, Awe, and Reverence. They didn’t want God to pay attention to them because they knew what that Gaze would mean for them: the purging away of their sins, the Gaze that looks upon them for who they REALLY are, not who they pretend to be; the Gaze that sees through their evasions and fortresses built up against God’s holiness. The Gaze that strips them bare, and that holds up a mirror to them, showing them all that is deeply true about themselves, and all that they would rather not see.
The FEAR of the Lord is also the biblical way to talk about belief in God. The question that faces the people of God throughout Holy Scripture is not one of whether or not they BELIEVE in God. It is whether or not their actions reveal the FEAR of the Lord. If they are acting in ways that flout God’s commandments to love their neighbors, to honor and respect God, to serve the widows and orphans and aliens and refugees in their midst, then they are what we might call practical atheists. They ACT as though they do not FEAR the LORD, because they do whatever they choose with no sense of any consequences for their actions. And so they have lost God’s FEAR since their ethics no longer reflect the Covenant, no longer reflect the very face of God revealed to God’s people in the Law.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians doesn’t absolve the people of God from the Fear of the Lord; but it does point out that simply to think of God as a cosmic disciplinarian out to get us, out to punish us for every little transgression, is not the way to holiness, either. Those of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into a covenental community that seeks to follow the Law as Jesus summarized it, and as the Holy Spirit empowers us to do so: to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love ourselves, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
What do we fear then, when we fear the Lord? Like the people of God in the Old Testament, perhaps we fear the All-Powerful Gaze of God revealing our truest, most hidden selves. Perhaps we fear God showing us the places in our lives where we need God the most.
Perhaps especially we fear God showing us the places where we need change, where we need to cast off the false self and embrace the kind of radical trust in God and God’s promises that takes us on an adventure of faith, to places we might not rather go, to people we might not rather meet, to revise and revisit and alter our perspectives that may have grown stale and calcified over many years.
In the Gospel lesson for today, the people of the country of the Gerasenes are seized with fear. It is a kind of Fear of the Lord, and it is a fear borne out of the recognition that God can command and introduce great and radical change into the lives of ordinary people. That God can, and will, truly, raise Hell: commanding forces far beyond our own understanding and overturning all that we thought was true about ourselves and the world around us.
They were afraid when they saw their compatriot clothed and in his right mind. They were afraid at this kind of power, the power of God to set the world aright.
When God loves us, God changes us.
When we allow the power of God into our lives, we literally don’t know what’s going to happen.
When we ask God to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven, we are asking a truly revolutionary force, indeed the only truly revolutionary force in the entire universe, to invade our lives and our worlds. That is the FEAR of the Lord.
The man who had had his soul cleansed found this out as well. He simply wanted to remain with Jesus, to be with him in the center of this life-changing mountaintop experience. But Jesus had other ideas for him. Jesus effected a revolution in his life and it wasn’t going to stop with his conversion. Jesus wanted this man’s healing to reverberate far beyond his own life, to create ripples of healing and joy and gratitude everywhere around him. And so he sends him on a mission: go back home, CHANGED. Go back home, and be a living witness to the fear of the Lord, the revolutionary power of God’s healing hand.
We might think that those who truly FEAR the Lord fear nothing else; that they move through life as living saints, living only for God and God’s kingdom and never experiencing the ups and downs of the life of faith.
But that, of course, is not true. All the great saints experience a full range of emotional responses to God’s presence in their lives.
One such saint and martyr is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor-theologian who resisted the fascism of his own country’s government until it cost him his life.
When Bonhoeffer was imprisoned, about a year before he was executed by the Nazis in 1945, he wrote a poem about fear.
He begins the poem, entitled “Who am I,” with three stanzas about what people perceive him to be. For example, he says, “Who am I? They often tell me / I speak with my guards / freely, friendly and clear, / as though I were the one in charge.”
But this is not what he feels of himself. Inside, he is “restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird, / struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled, starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong, thirsting for kind words, human closeness . . . too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work, / weary and ready to take my leave of it all.”
And so he asks: who is the real “I”? Which one is the real self?
He ends the poem by saying “Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!”
Rowan Williams says of Bonhoeffer’s poem that it teaches us a valuable lesson about identity, selfhood, and the fear of the Lord. He observes that everything we don’t understand or see about ourselves, the bits and pieces we can’t pull together into a convincing story, are all held together in a single gaze of love. So we don’t have to work out and finalize who we are. All of the questions that keep us up at night, the questions that keep us tossing and turning, are unanswerable by us, but only by God. Who we are: who I am, is in the hands of God.
And so truly to FEAR the Lord is to allow God’s gaze, God’s piercing and revealing gaze of Ultimate Love, to strip us of our pretense and inadequacy. To FEAR the Lord is to allow God to see us. To FEAR the Lord is to give up the idea that we are in control of our own selfhood, our own identity, and to rest: to rest wholly and completely in God’s understanding of who we are, an understanding completely, utterly, and beautifully motivated by LOVE, and LOVE Alone.