Sermon: Pentecost 13
Christ Church Gardiner
19 August 2018
Stephen D. Muncie
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
– Psalm 111.10
In 1741, just thirty years before Sylvester Gardiner walked up this hill from the Kennebec River and announced that he was establishing a new town with a new church on this spot – (I’ll just add that he was wise not to name the church St Sylvester’s especially since he had gone ahead and named the town, Gardiner, after himself) – just thirty years before this community and this parish church were founded here, one of the most famous sermons in the history of our country was given in a Congregational Church in New England. The sermon marked the beginning of what came to be known as The Great Awakening and was called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Jonathan Edwards, the preacher, stepped into the pulpit and delivered a long and detailed exhortation on hell in order to scare the hell out of the people – and it worked. He was so vivid in his description of hell’s torments that had been prepared for the people sitting in the pews – old colonial pews not unlike the pews you are sitting in this morning – that it is said that people cried out in agony during the sermon, pleading to be saved, and that some people fled from the church in fear.
Now, Kerry and I love preaching in your midst but, so far, we have not noticed many of you pleading for salvation or fleeing in fear while we preach. We are more used to seeing you look quickly down at a watch to calculate how long until we all get safely to coffee hour.
“Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” sparked a massive religious revival in New England but you can’t say that it has endured. We live in one of the most unchurched parts of the country – and Maine is one of the states with the lowest church attendance in the country. Here in Gardiner the Congregational Church just down the hill from us closed years ago, then sold to a brewery, and now the brewery is gone. Life is hard when even the brewery can’t make it.
It’s a bit scary to be a person of faith in a world that seems to have little interest in faith or, at least, in what they think our faith is all about. In this sense, it may very well be that the legacy of Jonathan Edwards famous sermon has endured – you know, most people think that we churchgoers are obsessed with hell and damnation, judgment and guilt. And they have fled from the fear we have preached.
In today’s psalm we prayed, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” but a lot of people seem to have made a decision – maybe even a wise decision – to reject this kind of religious fear-mongering.
Is this psalm really telling us that to be wise we have to cower in fear before God?
From the time we are children we are told to be afraid – of big bad wolves, of hot burners on the stove, and of strangers. And we are wise to remind our children that the world can be a dangerous place.
And as we have been tragically reminded in the news this week, church itself can be a most dangerous place. The report on decades of child abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania is a deeply disturbing indictment of the failures of church and church leaders, a terrifying betrayal of everything a church is called to be – the family of Jesus, Jesus who came among us as a child himself. If you sometimes wonder why fewer and fewer people choose to fill church pews, or listen to preachers, or claim to belong to Jesus, you don’t have to look much further then your morning paper of the TV remote.
For too long and in too many ways churches have not only preached fear – because frankly fear is a way to control people, isn’t it? – but church has instilled deep and abiding fear in the hearts and minds of its people. People are afraid to report an accusation against a popular clergyman; people are afraid to come to church after a divorce; people are afraid to reveal their own brokenness, their own humanity.
Years ago in my small church in Ohio a man showed up one Sunday with his wife and kids. I met them outside where I was greeting people and as the opening hymn began the man’s wife and children slipped into church but he stayed outside where I stood waiting for the procession to get moving. I don’t ever like to guilt people into coming to church – there’s enough of that from religious relatives and television evangelists already – but I noticed he seemed a little embarrassed, eyes downcast, feet shuffling – so I just said, “It’s ok if you want to go on in, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.” And that man, who I later learned had never graduated from high school, taught me a wise lesson I have never forgotten. He said, “Preacher, I cant go into church because I have not renounced demon nicotine” and at that point he showed me the pack of Marlboros in his shirt pocket. He had been brought up in a fundamentalist church where smoking was a sign of demonic possession and he was not about to walk into the House of God with Marlboros in his pocket. He was afraid of the God who sends smokers to burn in the fires of hell. He was a “sinner” caught in the crosshairs of an angry God.
In an instant I knew he was burdened by a past where the church had been preaching him into hell, instilling fear within him, and separating him – not connecting him – to the God of love. But by the grace of God the greeter at our Episcopal Church that morning was a chain smoker and I took the man by the elbow and walked him to that greeter and said, “There’s someone here I’d like you to meet….” And lives were changed that day. Although I never got either of them to quit smoking for the good of their health, they did come to care for one another for the good of their souls.
Now that story has a happy ending, which cannot be said of the many young lives destroyed by abuse – not only in Pennsylvania but all over the world – or of those abused through the years in our own Episcopal Church and other religious communities – or of those who have come to believe that God is to be feared not loved, that church is about unquestioning obedience instead of liberating Good News.
When our Psalm tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it is not telling us we must be neurotically afraid of God but that we should be in awe of God. Unhealthy fear diminishes us, paralyzes us, imprisons us. This kind of fear wants us to be religious robots not joyful disciples. This kind of fear isolates and separates – like when Adam and Eve go and hide from God in the Garden to keep safe distance from God while God is looking for them, longing for them, the God who still longs for our love and awe. Fear is always about keeping your distance. Awe is about loving closeness. Awe is when the veil between this world and the infinite world becomes very thin, like a sheer curtain that offers a glimpse into the world as it could be, it should be, it will be.
We live in a world in desperate need of godly wisdom. We have been taught to cower in fear when we are truly called to embrace a reverent awe for love, and justice, and beauty, and truth. Because it is here that the true power of God is seen…. not in crippling us but freeing us; not in hate but in love; not in guilt but in grace; not in abuse but in justice; not in telling lies but in safeguarding truth.
We live in a fearful time. Church leaders criminally betray the most vulnerable in our midst. Political leaders daily insult and demean. World leaders amass power and trample the poor. You know, you don’t have to be book smart to be wise enough to know there is a better way to live –– to know that children must never be harmed, to know that what people say tells you who they really are, to know that the way we treat the most vulnerable is in fact the way we treat Jesus. Being wise is not about what you know but who you are – and who you choose to be.