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Fear, Focus, and Wisdom:
(or: When “Fear” doesn’t mean what you think it means!)

Epiphany 4 Common Lectionary Year B

Psalm 111:1-10

©2018 Rev. Elisabeth R Jones

Thank you for helping to populate an ancient psalm with
our own words of praise for the awesome manifestations of God’s
god-ness in your lives and experiences.

Now that the children have left us to work more of their magic on the psalm,
I’d like to turn our attention to the last verse of the psalm,
translated in our hymnbook version as
“Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom;
those who practise it have good understanding.”

I’m tempted to get all scholarly on you,
and approach this with the brain…
(I will do, first, but then we need to take it further,
and get our emotions and experience involved in the conversation as well.)

So, the scholarly bit first.
Back in 1535, when Miles Coverdale was translating
the Hebrew Bible into English
he used the word “fear” to translate the Hebrew YARA.
It wasn’t a bad choice, in part because in the early 16th century,
the word “fear” was broader in its meanings than it is now.
Now, we tend to associate “fear” with “being frightened”
an overstimulated amygdala,
“scared” “guilty”, “dread”, even “terror.”
Back in the 16th century, it could mean those things,
but it could also mean being bowled over in awe of something powerful,
something really good,
or to be deeply connected and committed to someone or something.

I think now the best word we can find for Yara is Awe.
being gob-smacked by the awesome-ness of God,
of what God is, and does,
to be completely bowled over at the manifold evidence of God’s works in the world…

What’s that like for you?
Listening to a wonderful piece of music,
watching your newborn child or grandchild sleeping,
of watching your children grown good, wise, loving,
or the awe of listening to the ice clattering from the branches onto crusted snow,
or the awe of riding the perfect wave,
the awe of watching the entire sky burn gold as the sun sets….

That awe, that yara,
is the beginning of wisdom.

Do you remember back on the feast of epiphany,
when we spoke of the wise ones,
asking what made them wise?
We discovered in Matthew’s telling of the story these five things: (slide)
They were full of questions
Open to mystery
Capable of joy
Overflowing with a resultant generosity.
That sort of wisdom comes from awe.

That same wisdom is here, present in this psalm,
both in its original, and in our extended version of it,
because the “fear” – the yara – is awe of God.
All that is worth telling;
it’s why we took so much time to
hear it, experience it, sing…
this awareness of God’s god’ness, God’s power for good..

But I promised we’d go a bit deeper into the emotions of this verse.
And what I have to say is an apology.
Maybe I have no right to do this…
But I stand here, collared, ordained by institutional religion.
And we all know that over the centuries, church
has played on and even sanctified fear.

Instead of lifting up to the people the sense of awe and wonder for God,
the church has too often chosen to turn up the fear factor,
painting God’s god-ness
not as a redemptive, healing mending power for good,
but as a truly terrifying power to condemn.
Church has played on people’s fear in order to control, coerce,
and guilt people into behaviours that protect the institution,
that cause people to live in fear of joy,
too fearful to delight in the sensuality of our own bodies,
too scared to delight in creation,
And all too often promoting the sort of
pinched, small-hearted fear that denigrates
the full worth of every human being to hear and respond
to the call of God to fullness of living,
loving, and hope.

That sort of fear-mongering has nothing to do with God,
or God’s Dream.
It is a lousy interpretation of this verse and all those other verses
that speak of the Yirat Adonai (fear of God)
as a moment of human humility, joy, wonder,
before the overwhelming, unwavering goodness of God.
That is the sin of the church against God, and against humanity.
And someone has to say “I’m sorry.”

It’s tempting to say
“Let’s be done with that word “fear” entirely, wipe it out.”
But there is a Yirat Adonai/ fear of God
that we do need to nourish that leads to wisdom:
an inquisitive questioning faith
that is open to mystery
that humble, joyful, and generous,
that captivates us completely in the Dream of God
such that we can imagine doing nothing else than
share with God in the healing, redeeming work God is calling us to do,
fearful or not.

Because living the Dream of God is scary stuff!
One of you last week named…. it takes courage
to step beyond pinched fearfulness, in order to
to be on the side of truth and justice and love.
It is the Yirat-Adonai which provokes in us the courage
to stand beside a Muslim on a bus to shield her from bigotry,
to move our comfort aside to give shelter to the refugee, the homeless,
to commit to clean water for every Canadian, settler and indigenous,
to believe our grandmothers, our mothers, sisters and daughters when they speak their truth about systemic sexism and abuse,
to raise our sons and brothers to be reflections of God’s generous, humble wisdom and care,
to speak up for the silenced, and to listen when they speak.

It is daunting, this fear of God, isn’t it?
Which is why I am grateful for this psalm,
and the way we have made it our own.
The psalmist situates us in the “assembly of the faithful, and with all creation”
so that we can sing out our praise together, hear one another, encourage one another,
be the voice of wisdom for one another.
From this community expression of awe, yara,
we nourish in one another, the daring courage to step beyond
fear into the redemptive healing work we are called to offer in the world,
not because we are powerful, not because we’re fearless,
but because we are the people of a powerful loving, redemptive God.
And that is the Yirat Adonai that is the beginning of wisdom.

And that is awesome! Yes?

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