Healthy Fear

My primary text is neither from the prophet Hosea nor from Luke’s Gospel, it’s summer and I want to go a little off book. There is a single line from Proverbs. Chapter 9, verse 10: “The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” What are we to do with fear?

What if we believe “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom?”

The Prophet Hosea

The question comes to me in part because of what the prophet Hosea says in today’s lesson:

“They will walk after the Lord, who roars like a lion. When [God] roars, the children will come trembling…and I will return them to their homes.”

What does God’s roaring sound like? I imagine it makes your skin prickle. Hosea tells us it makes the children tremble. But notice, notice where it leads. The prophets wanted the people to have a healthy fear. What is the difference between unhealthy fear and healthy fear? A certain measure of fear is necessary. A certain measure of fear keeps you safe. Parents will tell you, a certain amount of fear is necessary to keep your children alive. They’ll also tell you, many of them, that they didn’t know fear until they started parenting. A certain measure of fear helps us grow. We need the kind of fear Hosea prophesies, a healthy fear that leads you home.

We live in times full of unhealthy fear. Take a look at the newspaper. There is a constant pipeline of terror, available 24/7, on the television, on the computer, on the glowing rectangles so many of us carry around in our pockets. Have you heard of the term “doom-scrolling?” The term is likely to be added to Webster’s dictionary within a year or two. Doom-scrolling is a way of describing our unhealthy relationship with news, reading story after story about climate change, war, inflation, political deadlocks, unhealthy fear is all around us.

There is fear in the story Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.

St. Basil, commenting on this Gospel in the fourth century, imagined his own conversation with Jesus’ parabolic rich farmer. Basil imagined asking the man, “But if you fill these larger [barns], what do you intend to do next? Will you tear them down yet again only to build them up once more? What could be more ridiculous than this incessant toil, laboring to build and then laboring to tear down again? If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor.”

There is a freedom in Basil’s response to Jesus’ greedy protagonist. Yes, Basil is concerned about the poor. Yes he’s concerned that the hungry are fed. But he is also concerned about the rich man. This rich man is afraid. He’s working so hard to protect his wealth. He’s investing so much time and energy and labor in storehouses that he’s missing the point. He has enough. He has more than enough. He is already free to give away out of his abundance. But the fool can’t see his freedom. He is caught in an unhealthy fear.

How much sin comes from misplaced unhealthy fear?

The fear of Jesus’ rich farmer is the oldest fear in the book. Literally. Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament Scholar, says that the Bible starts out as a book of abundance. Even after the departure from Eden, people have enough. It’s not until the 47th chapter of Genesis that Pharaoh gets involved in the story. “Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land. So Pharaoh gets organized to administer, control and monopolize the food supply. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy. For the first time in the Bible, someone says, “There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.” Pharaoh builds the first storehouses…and those storehouses echo in Jesus’ story. The question is about where we place our fear. Are we afraid for ourselves, or concerned for our neighbors?

Fear for ourselves is natural, but care for our neighbors takes spiritual work.

Many of us, in this congregation are aging. There is a certain fear that comes from getting older. Bodies act differently. There was a moment this last week that really caught a number of folks I know by surprise, was a deep moment of hope. Did you see Joni Mitchell’s set at the Newport Folk Festival. Mitchell played the festival for the first time in over 50 years. She’s 78. More than that, this was Joni’s first full concert since she had a brain aneurysm in 2015. For awhile she wasn’t able to talk. She had to re-learn how to play guitar.

What was so inspiring was not just hearing how good Joni sounded, how much she had overcome. It was seeing that she wasn’t alone. Brandi Carlisle summoned a whole community of singers to backup Mitchell. At times she helped her remember lines. They had her back. The set was a testament to how we can lift one another up, not cast someone aside as they age, as they deal with the difficulties of illness and disability. Joni sat on a throne and sang, and it was a picture of hope, and goodness. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and google Joni Mitchell this week, sit back and soak it in.

We have been conducting a lot of funerals lately. Just yesterday we held a service for Chris Carter. We read again the words from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “in my Father’s house there is room to spare. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” Jesus doesn’t want us to fear death. Don’t be anxious about life beyond the grave. Trust that our beloved friends and family members are with God, and with God there is always, always, room to spare. Jesus doesn’t want us to fear death, but Jesus does want us to be concerned with how we are living the days we have. Fear God, not because God will punish you wantonly. Fear God because you are accountable to God’s standard. Fear God because God desires deeply, fundamentally, that each of us are caught up in the work to bring about God’s reign of justice, equity, and love.

The Hebrew word for Fear is connected to the words for awe, reverence, for wonder, for worship. In the prophet Samuel’s final speech to the people Israel he says: “Don’t turn aside to follow useless idols that can’t help you or save you. They’re absolutely useless” then he utters the famous words: “Only fear the Lord, and serve God faithfully.” Only fear the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.

What if we allowed our fears to be re-ordered, to be transformed?

This week many of us knew a degree of fear. I’ll let you determine what of it was healthy and what was unhealthy. I head an interview on the radio of a Jesuit priest who found himself on Forest Park parkway when the road flooded. The water rose so fast, he didn’t have a chance to drive to higher ground. His car got stuck. When the water reached his seat, he decided it was time to get out. He was able to swim to safety. I read about a teenager in UCity who smashed the floorboards of his neighbors kitchen with a cast iron skillet in order to rescue a young child trapped in rising water in the basement. Certainly healthy fear helped motivate action, helped save lives this week.

But, I wonder, could we allow that momentary fear to translate deeper? Could our common experience of fear help us be better connected? I am thankful most of us in this congregation suffered only minor damage in this week’s rains. But drive down Vernon. You’ll see dumpsters lining the sidewalks. Many of our neighbors lost a great deal more. In the months ahead, some of our neighbors will face toxic mold, unsanitary conditions. Some of our neighbors lost their lifeline of transportation, and that loss might cost them income, even a job.

Many of us faced temporary fear this week as the waters rose. I wonder whether that temporary fear might help us see and do something about the longtime suffering of our neighbors. As St. Basil put it, “the only storehouses you need are in the bellies of your hungry neighbors.” Fearing God is about reorienting priorities, letting go of the need to “get ahead.” Fearing God is about seeing, really seeing, the ways our neighbors are being forced to live every day. Fearing God is the beginning of Wisdom.

In the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe young Susan hears for the first time of Aslan from Mr. Beaver. She asks about the Lion questioning, “is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mr. Beaver replies “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Following God isn’t safe. Being a Christian won’t guarantee you a life of comfort and ease. God is not tame. The God of Israel, the God of Jacob, the God of Jesus is full of raw power, frightening amounts of power. God should instill a little healthy fear in us, because God charges us always, always to grow, to change, to build more justice.

If all your fear is doing is shutting you down, if all your fear is doing is making you numb, if all your fear is doing is causing you to buy more insurance for your house, or click “purchase” for survival supplies online then your fear isn’t the fear of God. The fear of God calls us away from all our false fears, that we don’t have enough, that we aren’t enough. The fear of God makes us free to act, free to care for one another. The fear of God calls us home.

When you find yourself doom-scrolling, whenever you find yourself afraid, remember fear isn’t an end unto itself. The fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom. See if you can’t re-orient some of that fear away from whatever temporary crisis or anxiety currently holds your attention. Get to work. Each day God demands your very life, nothing less. Get the some of the fear of God in you, and you might find yourself free, free to make life a little less fearful for your neighbor.

Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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