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Fearing the Right Things
The Word in the Wild, Year A, Proper 22
This morning I was reading Olivier Clement’s small and beautiful book, Taize: A Meaning to Life. In it he writes that, “Sin is a mysterious separation. It is this feeling we sometimes have that we are so close to paradise in the beauty of the world, in the look of trust in someone’s face, or in the wonder of love, but that this paradise, in spite of everything, is lost…Paradise is near, and I cannot enter it.”
Looking at goldenrod on a roadside, a remnant in the rush of traffic, the vast concrete, machine world, gives me this sense of this separation. All around me is beauty, wonder, life and love, and yet it is being paved over and cut down, and my desires are tied to that destruction. I’m on that road driving, participating in the loss. Paradise is gone and though I want its return I continue to act toward its demise.
The people of Israel knew something of this tension between paradise and its undoing. They had been in Egypt, the paved over, tilled over, exploited world of Empire. And they longed for the freedom on the other side of it. The promise given them was a land flowing with milk and honey, in other words, a place where good food could come without violence. In that promised land they were to enjoy the beginning of what God was doing to heal the whole world. But in order for them to get there, to enter it without bringing new ruptures, new separations, they had to learn to live in fullness.
The practice of this fullness, made manifest in loving God and neighbor, is captured in the “Ten Commandments.” It’s a familiar list, but in its familiarity we might miss the deeper reality of what’s happening in the text. To get us to that deeper level, it is helpful to skip ahead to the very end of this Sunday’s reading from Exodus. After the people are awed by the nearness of God, they turn to Moses in terror. Moses in response, gives the people that most common command in all of scripture: “Do not be afraid.” He then goes on to say, “God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” It is a curious passage, if we think about it. “Do not be afraid” for God has come to “put the fear of him upon you.”
What Moses is doing here, I think, is turning fear as dread toward fear as healing. It was dread that the people first felt before God—mountains smoking, trumpets sounding. Dread doesn’t bring us toward life, it leads only to being paralyzed or panicked. Proper fear of God, however, is born of awe at God’s power—not as some malicious agent, but as a reality that is not to be taken lightly. Our fear of rushing rivers, tall cliffs, rip tides, or powerful storms is an important response that leads us to act appropriately in their presence. We may still climb a cliff, canoe a river, or swim in the ocean, but we do so with recognition that we will respect those powers or face peril.
And this brings us back to the Ten Commandments and their point. God’s life and presence is a power of great healing and life. It is in that presence that the great separation of sin can be overcome and paradise regained. But to live in that presence, to move with its currents and flows, we must be exact in our actions. We have to let an appropriate fear turn us toward care. To love God and neighbor, to learn to be free of greed and lust, to let go of our relentless need for production, to release our hearts of hatred, are all necessary to live in the presence of God. It is there in that presence, that the healing can begin. God comes not to scare us, to send us into a terrified panic, but to offer a great power to bring us toward our deepest longings. The commandments, the ten and all the rest, are merely guides for how to live in the fullness of such a power. Fear not, so that you can fear the right things, responding with care and reaping life as a result.