[A Sermon for 4 Epiphany
Delivered February 1, 2015
at St. John's in the Village]
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”
We all have our vices.
Don’t worry; I’ll only be talking about mine today. Well, one of them, that is.
And I’m only doing that because it comes up in all three of the readings, and in the Psalm.
When that happens, it’s pretty hard to ignore it.
So, I’m going to talk about a secret vice of mine. Or maybe a not-so-secret vice.
That’s knowledge. Seriously, I love it. I love knowing things. I love it enough to tell you that Goethe made knowledge the ultimate temptation for Faust, so there. That’ll show you.
I also love using that knowledge to get things done.
It’s all the more fun if I know it—whatever it is—and you don’t.
You will not be surprised to hear that I am a lawyer in my day job.
Now, that love of knowledge isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love teaching, which is about sharing, and even sharing a favorite book or tv show with a friend can make me ridiculously happy. These are good things.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s that feeling I just mentioned—the wanting to know more than anyone else, the love of the power that knowledge can bring.
In psalm 111 we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Now, as Episcopalians we probably all have some sense that this doesn’t mean God is so terrifying that wisdom means being afraid of the terrible vengeance God will take on us, in punishing us for our sins. That tradition exists in Christianity, but it isn’t ours.
The fear of the Lord meant in the psalm is not that God hates us, or that God will be cruel to us. It means that wisdom begins with an experience. And that experience is the recognition of God in our lives. And coming face to face with that ultimate reality is so much more than we can imagine, that a glimpse of God strikes us with awe.
We don’t do awe well in our generation. We toss around the word “awesome” as a synonym for “excellent” or “good.” But that’s not awe.
Awe can be frightening. And I’m not going to conjure up all the standard nature metaphors—beautiful but terrifying lightning storms, or incredible mountain vistas.
Because good though those metaphors are, we’re talking about God, and you can’t have a relationship with Niagara Falls, or a mountain. A mountain or the Falls can change who we are, but all the movement is on our part. It can’t know us, the way Paul describes God as knowing us today in First Corinthians “…but anyone who loves God is known by him.”.
No, let’s stick closer to home for this. Think back to the first moment you realized were in love. Not infatuation. Not desire. The real thing. Now, I can’t speak for anybody but me, but mixed in with that unbelievable joy, that thrill that only the presence of that one special person can bring, is a kind of fear. The fear of being vulnerable. Will she love me back? What happens when he gets to know how insecure I am? Will I get hurt?
That’s awe. Recognizing that to be in relationship with God is to make ourselves vulnerable, and to do it anyway, that is the beginning of wisdom.
The beginning of wisdom is to let ourselves be guided by love.
Paul tells us straight out in First Corinthians: Knowledge puffs but love builds up.
Knowledge on its own can make us full of ourselves—puff us up with self-importance. But love will use everything that we have, everything that we are, and build up. Build up what? Those around us, the Church, the world. And knowledge in the service of love has its proper part to play in that building up.
Love outranks knowledge. If we love God, Paul tells us, we will use our knowledge to help those around us, and not to celebrate how much better we are than other people.
The example Paul gives is one that relates to customs in the ancient world, but it’s worth taking a look at it.
The Church in Corinth had a problem; the meat made available at pubic feasts, or even in the marketplace, had often been sanctified to the pagan gods. Now, meat served up at a general feast, could be the only meat poor people might have the chance to eat for months. Also, the feasts were an important part of community life. So what to do?
Paul makes two key points: The pagan gods don’t exist, so meaningless rituals to fictional characters can’t make a good dinner sinful. So what if the meat was cooked in front of an idol? The whole thing is nonsense, Paul says, so you might as well dig in and have a good meal.
On the other hand, some converts were a little skittish. They’re new, and while they may hear the message that there is only one God, actually taking it onboard emotionally is a different thing. Seeing their new brothers and sisters eating among the pagans might undermine their surety in the faith.
So, what does Paul advise? Basically, this: Don’t show off. Care more about how your action will affect your new brothers and sisters than on proving to them that you are right. You know perfectly well that the food and drink are harmless, Paul says, but why make it harder for those who don’t know as much as you do? Because it isn’t always about us.
It’s more important to act in a loving way and to consider others then to win a debate over something trivial.
And, even when the debate isn’t trivial, it’s even more important to act lovingly.
There’s a clue here as to what Paul means about loving God and being known by God. After all, we’re all known by God, so what can he be getting at?
I wonder if he’s saying that if we love God enough to not insist on getting our own way, even when that way is right, we have entered into a different kind of relationship with God.
And that new kind of relationship is one in which we are willing to not be seen as knowing more, as being right, if it helps others to feel secure enough to make themselves vulnerable to God. To feel that thrill of awe.
Wisdom begins when knowledge is put to use for the benefit of others, and not to gain status. After all, the scribes taught the same scriptures as Jesus, the Law and the Prophets. Half the time they try to trip him up, it’s on whether he knows them as well as they do. But he taught with authority, today’s gospel tells us, and that’s what made him different, as different as the true prophets in Deuteronomy are from the false. And what was that authority? Superior knowledge? Did he beat them at Bible trivia?
No; he brought his teaching into life. In his letters from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Jesus “the man for others.” He lived his life in service to those who needed him. He lived lovingly. He healed those who were hurting. Because he brought those who were alienated from God, and as a result, had lost their own true selves, back into relationship. That’s how Jesus, and not the scribes, taught with authority.
And what did he teach those people he helped?
He taught them awe.
He did it by seeing them, recognizing them, and calling them to wholeness.
What can we do?
We can try to follow Jesus’s example, and see those we meet along the way as they are. We can see our sisters and brothers in their insecurities imperfections, and anxieties—and act lovingly toward them anyway. We can avoid rehashing old quarrels, stop trying to prove a point, and just let it be.
We can open ourselves to friendship, and risk being rejected.
That doesn’t sound like very much, but I know that when it’s not about me, and my opinions, and I manage to get my ego out of the way the room it takes up? That space gets filled with the Holy Spirit.
And that really is awesome.
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.