Psalm 111

 A Sermon Preached at Woodland Hills Community Church

on February 2, 2003

By the Rev. Dr. June Christine Goudey

111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who practice it. His praise endures for ever!

Faith is often spoken of as an antidote to fear, and it can be; but fear is not the enemy of faith. There are many things we should fear, among them—abuse of power, hate based on ignorance, the denial of justice, unchecked terrorism, and the silence of good people. We have a right to be fearful of such things, but we don’t have a right to ignore our fears or run away from the consequences they unleash.

Scripture provides numerous examples of God uttering these words: “Be not afraid, for I am with you.” God’s spirit calls us to face our fears and erase the misunderstandings they create. God also calls us to meet the dangers posed by our fears and speak for peace—the peace of our souls and the peace of the world. But fear is not easily dismissed.

Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise that recites the trustworthiness of God in all circumstances. The psalmist praises God’s graciousness and mercy.  God is faithful and just and can be counted on to lead us in right paths. But within this psalm lies an irony of faith. We are told that the fear of God…the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What does this mean? If God tells us more than once to be not afraid, why does this Psalm tell us to fear Godself? And why is the gift of wisdom and understanding tied to this form of fear?

As I have said before, the Psalms are not prophetic speech or historical records. They show us the human face of faith and a limited view at that. The Hebrew word translated as fear in this context is closer to an understanding of awe and wonder—to honor God is to open oneself to wisdom and understanding.

Perhaps a better way to understand this text is to understand that wisdom begins in the love of God—not fear.  In the first letter to John we also learn that perfect love casts out fear, for fear implies punishment.

When our bodies are full of fear, they tend to close down in a protective manner. Instead of embracing others, we tend to pull away. The women who danced with this Psalm on Wednesday found this to be true. It was easier to praise God and dance with joy when I asked them to imagine awe in the place of fear.

If faith calls us to open heartedness, fear calls us to bar the door.

One of the tragedies of Christianity is that the fear of God has often been encouraged rather than discouraged. This is especially true in connection with Christ’s communion table.  Jesus healed through forgiveness and acceptance and often used the power of a shared meal to reveal God’s love.

Where social distinctions dictated exclusion from the table, Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts. He was criticized as being a drunkard and a glutton because he enjoyed good fellowship. Jesus loved people he didn’t fear them. He healed the blind, and the leper; he called the hated tax collector Zachaeus into his presence. He shared his compassion freely and he liberated people from that which bound them, even their fears.

Jesus believed if you loved God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength then it followed that you would love yourself and your neighbor likewise. He knew in the deepest sense that love heals it does not harm. The power of love produces well-being otherwise it isn’t love. It’s as simple as that!

You can speak about love, but you can’t unleash love’s healing power with words alone. Love is a verb. Wisdom comes in the act of loving. Concrete acts of love enacted here and now in this community, or at home with those you love, or in the world among strangers is at the core of our life-purpose.

Jesus calls us to do love, to become love in action. Unless you practice love, practice compassion, practice forgiveness daily, you are going through the motions of fear not faith. You can fool yourself on that score, but you can’t fool those around you. If you can’t become love by doing it, than fear not awe has you under its spell.

Love welcomes it does not bar the door. Love works through forgiveness, acceptance, and grace. Yet many who profess to love in Jesus’ name wreak havoc more than healing.

After Jesus died, the most significant change the church made in its practices was to shift the focus from the sacred fellowship of a meal shared to the food itself.

In the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the relationships of those who gathered at table revealed love at work. That is the meal the Apostle Paul witnessed. When women and men met in the spirit of Jesus, they knew what it meant to say to one another, “The Spirit in me greets the spirit in you.”

Over time the notion of eating with Jesus was replaced by the notion of eating Jesus. The bread and wine became somehow magical—the medicine of immortality, as Irenaeus called it. Not everyone shared this view; but the church, backed by the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine, had the power to enforce this way of thinking.

In the second century church leaders formally created a system of penance. They also decided that being expelled from the church’s common meal must be the punishment for Christians who had been found guilty of committing a sin against the church or the community. Sin means literally missing the mark, so somehow the standard created to govern the life of the church by those in authority became more important than love itself.

In other words, the church decided that those who were good enough to eat with Jesus when he was living were not good enough to share the church’s meal wherein it kept alive Jesus’ memory. As the memory of Jesus’ physical presence faded, so too did the spirit of his loving.

The driving force behind the sacrament of penance was the hope of healing people in this life. But behind the rhetoric lay a deeper motivation. Penance provided an opportunity to escape the fires of hell by saving the sinners’ souls before they died.  This way of being church lasted for a while, but soon church members came to understand that shame and humiliation wound rather than heal.

As a result those who understood this truth voted with their feet to leave the church. Others put off baptism until their deathbed because they had no desire to undergo this very public and very humiliating act of contrition. During the years that followed the whole system changed and eventually became the private mode of confession practiced by the Roman church today.

It didn’t matter that Jesus never spoke of hell or condemned people to hell. The church put these words in his mouth and continued to teach that Jesus would come again to judge the living and the dead—one day he would come and separate the sheep from the goats. The hell-bent could not be heaven-sent.

It didn’t seem to matter that the image of hell was a product of human imagination that had undergone many geographical and metaphorical transformations over five centuries before it came to be the lakes of fire found in the book of Revelation.

Human beings literally created the notion of hell before Jesus was born. Then we somehow forgot we created it and allowed it to frighten generations of believers till this very day.  Most of us might argue that we don’t believe in an after-life of hell. But I wouldn’t be so sure. Fear is molecular.  It roams around within us in the deep recesses of our undermind, those inter-body connections of blood and tissue that are too deep for us to grasp through reason alone.

If we have never freed our bodyspirits of the notion that God punishes human beings for their sins, and uses illness or tragedy to teach us moral lessons then the fear of hell in one form or another will play havoc with our ability to cast out fear. Instead we will cast our fears unto others and use them as scapegoats for our own imperfections.

In medieval times acts of penance became tied to the proper celebration of this meal and the proper handling of the bread and wine. To safeguard broken pieces of bread from falling to the floor and being eaten by vermin, the priest placed the bread, now believed to be Jesus body, directly in the communicants mouth; to safeguard the wine from being spilled, the church decided that the cup would be with held from lay people. Only the priest could drink Jesus’ blood.

The Reformers of the 16th century made many corrections. They restored the cup to the laity, and restored the image of a meal around a common table.  They eliminated the sacrificial actions of the priest at an altar. But they were only able to re-shape or re-image communion to a certain point.

Instead of offering one clear alternative, they argued over theological points of view that continue to plague us today.  Luther thought anyone who felt unworthy should come to the table and receive forgiveness. Calvin thought the meal was a celebration of the forgiveness that had already been given us by Jesus’ death.

Zwingli said this was a memorial meal and nothing much happened at the meal itself.

They all had a tiny piece of the truth, but in the end those who had more fear in their body had the greater say. The Puritans and Pilgrims were more obsessed with the fear of hell and the fear of God’s judgment; so they took Calvin’s notion of fencing the table- of saying who was unworthy to eat this meal, and they hardened there hearts towards those they deemed unworthy.

In essence the Reformed tradition stopped the private practice of confession to a priest and allowed the sacrament of penance—second baptism—to burden the celebration of thanksgiving—eucharist. The result was often a solemn sense of joy that seemed more like a funeral than a celebration of resurrection.

I believe its time to erase the funeral image from Holy Communion and bring back a sense of Jesus’ welcome table.

All are welcome and all are worthy!  The trouble is not everyone believes their own worthiness because they are bound to fears they cannot name- they can feel them, but they can’t name them. Is that true for you too? One day I was preaching in a small country church in Maine and I was talking about the images of fear that get stuck in our bodies.

After the sermon, a man told me that as a child, a priest had scolded him for something he had done. Instead of stopping there the priest told him that if he didn’t confess his sins before coming to mass that when he opened his mouth to receive communion a black snake would come out.

Needless to say the fear of that snake kept him away from communion for years. Thankfully he is now free of the snake and the fear it caused.

What fears are you carrying today that you want relief from? What changes are you praying for in your own life?

If you want to renew your faith in a loving God you have to do more than pray, you have to have the courage to move beyond your fears and cultivate a sense of awe and wonder. You also have to look at the source of your fears.

Beneath all our fears is a pain too deep to bear. A pain-denied leads to fear and fear disguises itself as anger. Some of us use anger as a shield and defend ourselves with self-righteous behavior. Some of us find anger too frightening because it creates more pain through conflict. When this happens we allow our anger to morph over into depression or false sweetness, either way fear has the upper hand.  The fear of the Lord is not the beginning of wisdom; it is the denial of wisdom.

When we deny our bodywisdom by silencing the pain we carry love loses and fear wins. When we come to see ourselves as unworthy of love or we fear to love again because the last time it hurt too much love loses and fear wins.

If this is true for you, or somebody you know I’m here to remind you that this table is about love not fear, about hope not hopelessness. This Communion meal is holy because it’s about welcome and forgiveness.  By saying yes to God’s welcoming love, by participating in this holy meal you say yes to awe, to wonder, to mystery. You accept your own belovedness; in doing so you say no to the forces of fear that have kept you from seeing the wonder of God.

Saint Augustine (354-430) once observed that

“People travel to wonder at the height of mountains,

at the huge waves of the sea,

at the long courses of rivers,

at the vast compass of the ocean,
at the circular motion of the stars;

and they pass by themselves

without wondering.

In her one- woman play Lilly Tomlin encouraged her space friends to do awe-robics- to let the mystery of life get under their skin and create goose bumps of good news.

Today I encourage you to do the same- I simply ask you to see the wonder of your own personhood, to believe that you can let yourself be loved and that you can become love for one another