Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Luke 12:1-12) transports me to Monday night’s opening worship at the summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship, aka Peace Camp, being held this week on the campus of Gonzaga University in Spokane. The service included music from a local African Methodist Episcopal church choir, who stirred us up with rocking versions of Balm in Gilead and Pass Me Not, and a gospel number I had not heard, My God Is Awesome. We stood and clapped and sang along, as best as a roomful of predominantly white folks could, shouting the words of praise and descriptors of God along with the choir – Great! Mighty! Deliverer! Provider! Protector! with each descriptive line ending with the richly harmonized shout of Awesome! Sometimes worship doesn’t always take me where the worship leaders intend, and this was one of those times. Being something of a word nerd with a strange fascination around etymology, I started thinking about the word awesome. We’ve come to think of awe as a feeling synonymous with joyous wonder. Its origins signified more of an awful feeling; it comes from one of those old Proto-Indo-European words that crosses lots of cultures – agh – originally expressing feelings not of an inspiring sense of wonderment, but of a dreadful and depressing fear, a terrifying anguish. It emerged in the real world experience of people across all cultures who faced a monstrous world where the fragility of life was exposed on a daily basis to terrors of one kind or another.
Jesus was born into such a dreadful world, with a monster of an empire controlling the behavior of a vulnerable people through various instruments of terror. For would be followers of Jesus, such a situation engendered a great deal of hypocrisy. It was not only the kind of hypocrisy we think of, where people mask inner wickedness with a public facade of civil religion. No, in the context of the Roman empire, the early Christians were also tempted to fit in and mask their inner devotion with an outward show of complicity with the cruel regime. A private profession of “Jesus is Lord” co-existed with a public profession of “Caesar is Lord.” All because of fear. The system was designed to inspire a great deal of agh – of awe, of dread and terror. Jesus acknowledged two well-worn paths of engagement in response to such monstrous fears controlling our lives, and then he offered a third way. First, Jesus acknowledged the very real fears his followers had regarding the profiling and stalking and state-sanctioned murder of people of faith. The hypocrisy of privatized faith was one strategy of dealing with these fears. But it wasn’t Jesus’ way. He taught that state terror has its limits – these monsters can only kill the body. Jesus then acknowledged an ancient way of countering that fear – by fearing an even bigger monster, the god described as having power to destroy both body and soul in an eternal state of torture. That’s more than an awesome god – that’s an awful god. Creating this image of a terrible god is one way to survive and keep the faith in a world of state-sponsored terror. Since I have access to an omnipotent Monster who can kick your man-made monster’s ass, I don’t have to be secretive about my faith; I can boldly proclaim it, to the point of martyrdom, because the big scary monster of a god who runs the whole universe is on my side and the tables will be turned in the by and by. For the most vulnerable of people, exposed to the daily tactics of terror imposed by the system’s profilers and stalkers and murderers, such hellfire rhetoric is part of an understandable strategy of survival.
But Jesus didn’t stop there; he offered a third way of engaging the monsters of the world: Lean into the understanding of God as pure love. Imagine not an awful god of torture and terror, but a God of tender compassion, who demonstrates care even for the most vulnerable creatures, who values even the most worthless of creatures. This is the God who loves us deeply and knows us completely, down to the last hair on our head. Given that understanding of God, and given our standing before God as beloved, Jesus tells us we need not fear. Don’t be afraid, he said. We need not fear the corporate monsters and cultural terrors that claim control of our bodies. Neither should we fear the reaper who claims control of our souls. Instead, be loved. Beloved. What have I to dread? What have I to fear? Leaning on the everlasting arms. Does that mean that there aren’t dreadful monsters in our world, especially for the most vulnerable in our midst, such as the teenagers of color who might want a sweet treat at the corner store? No, we live in an empire, like that of Jesus’ day, that justifies and encourages profiling and stalking. These fearful things exist. So if the most vulnerable and exposed of our world find strength for the journey by singing about an awesome God who protects and delivers, then I say sing and shout away, in rich harmony and driving rhythm. But at the end of the day, in a world where the images of a terrifying God have been know to foment fringe forms of faith that create their own reigns of terror, Jesus points us beyond the awesome god toward the loving God. It is this radical love, we read from one of Jesus’ followers, that ultimately casts out all fear and propels us to work for justice and peace in the most dreadful places of our world.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.