A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, September 7, 2014
When I was a boy, my grandparents came from Louisiana to share a summer vacation with our family. It was one of those years when we planned to go camping. Someone in the church had loaned us a pickup and camping trailer for our grandparents’ comfort; the rest of us would share the family tent. So, we set off for the mountains, my dad driving the pickup pulling the camping trailer and his dad driving the family’s big, blue Buick station wagon with the children in the back seat. The first part of our adventure was on the shores of beautiful Redfish Lake, high in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. The lake gets its name from the teeming salmon that used to make their way back from the Pacific every year to spawn and die. These days those salmon runs have been heavily depleted by the system of dams and hydroelectric plants along the Columbia and its tributaries, but the lake is still lovely.
After several days in that paradise, our caravan headed east toward Yellowstone, following the ancient Lolo Trail, carved by the Nez Perce Indians along the mountain side, high above the Salmon River, rushing over the rocks and fallen trees on its way to feed the Columbia. I don’t know if anyone knew how acrophobic my grandfather was but he drove the old Buick right up against the mountainside, even though it was the wrong side of the narrow, steeply winding road. Finally in frustration and fear for the well-being of his children and his parents, my dad pulled his dad over and insisted that he follow the truck and trailer. My father figured that at least he could run interference between my grandfather and oncoming traffic, hopefully preventing a head-on collision.
When we finally arrived at Yellowstone – intact – we were delighted to explore all the wonders of creation in that sacred, bubbling cauldron. Geysers, hot springs, painted rocks, bison, bear and moose, it was and is, a magical place. On the day our intrepid band went to see Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, my grandfather decided he would just wait in the car. The awe-inspiring view of the colorful canyon, cascading water and roiling river was just more than he could stand. No amount of coaxing could change his mind. He was simply afraid and not interested in confronting that fear, even in such an awesome setting.
The interface of awe and fear has long been of interest to me, especially since scripture speaks frequently of the “fear of God.” In a literal sense, this notion of fearing God fit well with what we learned growing up about God as a harsh, demanding judge. The prospect of the burning fires of hell surely sustained a sense that we ought to be afraid of the guy who could decide to send us there. You remember that old threat of “putting the fear of God” into a wayward child? I remember with some regret our favorite Sunday School teacher who insisted it was better to scare someone into heaven than let them burn in hell. Even as a youth I found that idea intolerable.
I think this notion of fear of God is overkill. Look again at this beginning text from Genesis. Over and over God sees what has been accomplished and says, “That’s good.” In fact, at the very end, when God seems to have crowned creation by making humankind in God’s very image and likeness, the proclamation is, “very good!” The image of an angry, vengeful god does not square with the God of Genesis 1. Here God delights in what has been made and desires to live in harmonious, creative communion with it all, especially with human creatures.
When the psalmist declares that “the heavens are telling the glory of God,” it is not a word about fear in a classic sense. This is a word of human awe and wonder at what God has done and continues to do. Here God’s delight in creation is shared through human delight in that same creation.
Awe and fear. There is a relationship between the two. When you stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone or sit on the shore of Redfish Lake with a clear view of the stars of heaven, you are struck with awe at the wonder of creation. The poet, James Agee wrote,
Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
I imagine there is always a modicum of fear contained in awe. It is not at all uncommon to feel some fear in the face of the unknown. There is something in human nature that would prefer to know all about, and thus control, the environment in which we find ourselves. It is not necessarily a fear that will keep us from exploring the unknown or encountering the mysteries of creation and the Creator. We can choose, like my grandfather, to sit in the car and miss the awe and wonder of the day or we can walk to the edge, peering out into the amazing possibilities that lie before us, weeping for wonder.
We can also worry about what is out there. How can we contain it? How can we control it? How can we tame it and make the most of it for our own selfish benefit? After all, God told us to subdue the earth and have dominion over it, right? So we work overtime to dominate its wildness and contain its chaos. It’s overwhelming work, an impossible task. We worry that we will ever be adequate, ever have enough to feel secure, to protect us from the threat of what we don’t know or understand. But isn’t this a serious misunderstanding of the responsibility God lays before us? I think so. I believe that the invitation to have dominion (a word with its root in the Latin word for our Sovereign God) is an invitation to see and treat creation with the same delight and love that God does. It is an invitation to share in creation with the care and compassion that God carries. It is an invitation to “touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently” and “nourish the life of the world in our care” (Shirley Erena Murray).
“Consider the lilies,” Jesus says, “look at the birds, see how God cares for it all.” Let go of your worry, maybe in the same way you let go of your fear. Trust this God who made you, who delights in you, who desires to live in creative communion with you and the rest of creation. Seek first the reign of God and everything you need will fall into place. God will take care of you. Whatever our awe and fear, our worry and wonder, this is good news. The God who made us is with us and for us. Amen.