Thursday, August 29, 2013

September 1, Proper 17, Contradictions 1: Fear God, Fear Nothing

Proverbs 25:6-7, Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14

This past July 21st I was in Newfoundland, Canada, in the fishing village of Lark Harbour, and I tried to go to church. Across the road from the gas bar is St. James Anglican. It has no sign of the service time, so on the Saturday, when I saw some people standing out back, I asked them the time of the service and they looked at me strangely and said 11 AM. Okay, so I got there at 10-of, and I was impressed. There must have been fifty cars parked around the church, and even young people entering in Sunday clothes. Wow, the locals are pious! Inside the usher handed me a bulletin and asked if I was family. What? No, I said, and went into the sanctuary.

The organ was playing and the acolytes were busy at the altar, and all the front pews were full and all the back pews were full and the middle pews were empty. That’s strange. I went back out to the usher and asked where I should sit. He said, Are you family? Then he said, This is a funeral.

I stood there stupidly for a moment, and then I asked if there would be communion. No. I think that’s tonight at 6. Oh, I’ll be on the ferry to Nova Scotia. Well, I did try to go to church.

If I sat in the middle, all by myself, everyone would have been watching me. If I sat up front they’d be watching me: Who is he and how did he know Billy Cavendish? If I sat in the back, the usher would not come and tell me to sit up front, nor would he tell any of the Cavendishes to go sit in the back, or there’d be trouble in Lark Harbour.

Seating has its protocols, and Jesus tells a parable on it, and like most of his parables, this one has several layers, and you have to keep working your way down into the layers, you have to unlock it like a combination lock, turning it back and forth. The outer layer is the good advice on how you can be deferential to your own advantage. Did we need the Messiah to tell us that? It’s already in the book of the Proverbs. You could get it from Emily Post. But thank you, Jesus, for confirming that we may look to our advantages. And you can leave the parable right there and be satisfied.

You could turn the parable the other way and go a layer down. Does it really matter where you sit? Do you care whether people think you’re either high or low? You can be free of that. Be free. Be free to sit alone. Wherever. The status that you need is what’s in your own mind, your advantage is your own to give yourself. There is wisdom in that.

But then Jesus adds those words about inviting the poor and the lame and guests who can’t invite you back, which turns it back the other way and goes another layer down. It’s not about yourself, do not sit alone, do not be free of other people, gather them around yourself but to your potential disadvantage. You give advantages away. When you are standing on line for tickets, you let other people in ahead of you. Practice a freedom of radical generosity and selflessness. God does.

That’s inspiring, but how much chaos will result from that. We need order, we need structure, we need patterns in our lives. We are animals, not angels. The customs of society have wisdom in them. If you let people cut in line ahead of you, what about the people behind you. At weddings and funerals it makes realistic sense for friends and family to have their special places. We cannot leave the parable at this point.

We have to go one more layer down. We turn it the other way again. The final combination is what Jesus says at the center of our lesson: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Is that true? Is that really true about the world? Often, but not always. We can think of plenty of humble people who are made to stay that way and worse. But Jesus does not say this as a truth about the world, he is giving the riddle of what God does within the world. God humbles the exalted and God exalts the humble, all the time, round and round, up and down.

Jesus was taught this by his mother. She sang of it in her song, the Magnificat, thirteen chapters earlier in this same gospel, and he echoes the language of his Mum. It’s about what God does. God freely acts this way in the world, with no regard for our advantages or our status or our sense of our deserving what we get. That’s the center of this parable, the freedom of God, the freedom of God from where you sit, God’s freedom from our conventions and patterns and good behaviors and predictions, which, of course, we know is right but still it is a fearful thing.

The Pharisees feared Jesus because he was so free like that. That’s why they were watching him closely. And we would have to say that the kind of fear they had of him was a negative thing. So why is it that the Bible tells us to fear God as a positive thing? Isn’t the fear of God a contradiction? Isn’t it a contradiction for us to repeat what repeated in Psalm 112, “Happy are who fear the Lord”? How can that be good?

I get that question frequently and it can’t be answered easily or quickly. You have live with it, you have to give this contradiction time and space within your life. You to let it open up a space in you, maybe a new space inside yourself for that special kind fear which is a good and loving fear.

They say that lion tamers have to love their lions but never lose their fear of them. You can’t domesticate a lion, it’s finally always wild. And powerful and dangerous. God is wild, and powerful and dangerous, and is absolutely free in front of us. In such a relationship fear is natural, and it’s why we should fear God. We cannot manage God, we can’t control or predict God, except only upon the promises which God has freely made to us. You can hold God to those promises, but you can’t even predict how and when those promises will be kept. Even when God is faithful God is free. And dangerous.

To fear God is to enter that space inside yourself where you feel the implications of the dangerous freedom of this God, this God who loves you for your good, but who has no regard for your status or your advantage or even your self-respect. What God has any regard for, as far as you’re concerned, is God’s own promises to you which are conditioned only upon God’s self. Which leaves you uneasy, to say the least.

But from this we get two benefits, but to get to them you have to make a couple jumps. The first jump is the benefit that if you fear God, you need not fear anything else. Fearing God, fear nothing else. You repeat to yourself what our epistle says, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid, what can anyone do to me?” It’s not your courage, it’s your hanging on God’s promise, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” God reminds you of that promise time and again in scripture.

Once God confirmed it to me silently, by suddenly becoming present to me, locally but not physically, next to me in our back room on President Street, when I most needed it, when I was more than humbled, when I was humiliated. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Upon that promise I am still learning not to fear, not to fear other people or situations or possibilities of loss or disadvantages and even not to fear myself. Fear God, fear nothing.

The second jump is the benefit that your freedom from fear is your freedom to love. You see that today in both the epistle and the gospel. You can love despite the restrictions of the conventions and the familiar order in the world.

So let me tell you a story which is true. Her name was Brenda-Lynn. She was a member of my second congregation, in Ontario. Brenda-Lynn was a nurse practitioner. She worked in a group home for the mentally-handicapped, some of them severely so, including cerebral palsy. That was her job. Brenda-Lynn got married to a guy named Evert, whom we all loved, and I did the wedding. They represented two big Dutch families, and it was a big reception.

Have you ever been to a Dutch-Canadian wedding reception? There’s nothing like a Dutch-Canadian wedding reception. And I think more than half our church was there. And you know whom the bride had seated up at the head table with her and the groom: the residents of her group home; they were the special honored guests of Brenda-Lynn. I watched them off and on, how they were watching her. They loved her, they were proud of her, because Brenda-Lynn was a beautiful bride. And she was beautiful in her freedom from the conventions of receptions, and we could see in her what God's own love for us is like.

Copyright © 2013, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.