Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday 21 June 2009 - Good & Evil

The gospel reading for this sermon is Mark 4:35-41



I want to pose a question to you this morning – Do you believe?

My question isn’t ‘Do you believe in God?’ And my question isn’t ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’ either.

My question is ‘Do you believe in evil?’ Jesus’ contemporaries believed in evil and that included his twelve closest disciples.

This morning’s Gospel reading is all about evil. Mark’s hearers would have recognized the format of this story in the same way that we know what’s coming when we hear ’One upon a time’ or ’An Irishman, A Scotsman and a Englishmen walked into a bar.’

The format of this story about a deity overcoming the wind and the waves was a format used in Near Eastern Cultures. Baal overcame the demon Yam and Marduk overcome the demon Tiamat; these were stories about Good overcoming Evil. The good god overcomes the forces of chaos and evil in order to restore goodness and harmony in the universe. The good god demonstrates his power and that he is in control.

What Evil is Not

But I wonder if we in the West really believe in evil these days? I sometimes think that what many of us are inclined to call ‘evil’ isn’t really evil. And what some of us are inclined to write off as ‘just the way things are’ is, in fact evil. The problem is that we just don’t know what to do about some of these things, so we prefer to deny that they exist. I just want to think this morning about what Evil actually is. You may or may not agree with me on some of the points.

First of all, I think that there is a difference between difficulties on the one hand and evil on the other hand. It is a difficulty of human life, for example, that we become ill or incapacitated. And for many people in
our culture, death is a difficulty or a tragedy. Although in some cultures, death is viewed as a welcome release. But whilst acknowledging that illness, incapacity and death can cause great difficulty and sadness is that emphatically not to be minimized, I don’t personally believe that they are Evil.

Secondly, there is also a difference between not following recommended Christian discipleship practices and Evil. If this seems something of a trivial point to you, I think it’s important to say this because I think that often those outside the Church might rightly be able to accuse us of caring more about denouncing those who don’t do churchy things than we care about denouncing outright Evil.

For example, IMO, it is not evil to choose a Cricket match over Sunday worship, although if you do that on a consistent basis, the choice is likely to be a real effect on your discipleship. Still, it’s not evil. And, you may disagree with me, but I’d hesitate to say that a couple who have had a long-term faithful partnership and children without the benefit of marriage are ‘Evil’. I’d still say that I believe marriage is the better option, but such a relationship isn’t, IMO, Evil. It’s just not good discipleship practice if you are a Christian.

So What is Evil?

So, if Evil is not difficulty and sadness and if Evil is not offending against Christian discipleship, what is Evil? I’m going to take a stab at the following working definition: Evil seeks to diminish human beings both as individuals and as communities. Evil seeks power over others with the objective of instilling fear and chaos and taking away autonomy. So whilst death from natural causes is not Evil, a death that results from intentional abuse is.

Child abuse is evil. Spousal abuse is evil. Torture is evil. Plundering, raping and pillaging is evil. I suspect that we can all agree on those things.

The problem comes when Evil works in a more subtle way, and it becomes difficult to put our finger on it. And I think it’s these subtler versions of Evil that are actually the most powerful.

So, for example, if it’s not downright Evil to live in a faithful relationship without the benefit of marriage…what ‘name’ do we place on cheap sex? When sex and love become completely separated and sex is just another appetite to be filled – one’s partner becomes the equivalent of a Saturday night take-away? When a baby’s arrival in the world is seen not as a precious human life but as a nuisance to be left to his or her own devices. There are teachers in this area who will tell you exactly what I’m talking about. Somewhere along the line, Evil has crept in and taken on a life of its own.

Or, if it’s not evil for me to want to provide for my family, what name do we place on poverty in the developing world? What do we call it when our insatiable demand for cheap goods supports horrendous working conditions in other countries? Somewhere along the line, Evil has crept in and take on a life of its own.

And if religion itself is not inherently evil what do we say when we learn that inhabitants of the city of Karachi have to live without basic amenities because of Taliban insurgents? Or when Protestant and Catholic continue to kill one another in Northern Ireland even years after The Troubles are supposed to have ended? Somewhere along the line, evil has crept in and taken on a life of its own.

Power over Evil

The parable of Jesus calming the storm could so easily be read as something like the following: When difficulties arise and you become anxious or frightened, don’t worry – Jesus is there. And this would not be an untrue reading of this text. It’s just a rather toothless reading of it.

Real evil exists. Sometimes it’s so blatant we can all name it. Most of the time, I think, it’s subtle and we might not all agree about what is evil. That’s when evil can grab hold of the life of a community or of an individual and take away their freedom, their dignity and their autonomy. That’s when perceiving evil as an elemental force of chaos isn’t actually far wrong.

And this parable is telling us that Jesus has real power of this kind of Evil. His power over Evil is so potent that the disciples themselves – who have been following him, listening to him and living with him – end up frightened of Jesus. Because, of course, any kind of power is frightening. Power that can destroy evil also has the potential for being evil itself.

And it is at this point that today’s reading ends: with the disciples terrified.

But there is Good News in today’s Gospel. Because we know from Jesus’ life that God’s Kingdom is a conspiracy of hope and healing. The Good News of the Kingdom is far better than simply that we can rely on Jesus when we are scared or anxious. The Good News of the Kingdom is that Jesus has real power over Evil. And we, as the church who is the body of Christ, also have real power over Evil.

And, although we don’t possess our own supernatural powers, we do share with Jesus the power of Good. The moral compass of self-giving love as outlined in Scripture and Christian teaching can help us to discern good from evil when combined with prayer. The Holy Spirit promises to give us courage when we seek to do what is right and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus to the cross and to self-giving love.

Because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christians believe that light and life have been woven into the fabric of creation from the beginning of all things. Christ has conquered sin, death and the power of evil and Christ’s power is not to be feared, but rather is to be embraced because it is always used for good.

And I think that’s very good news indeed.

As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning/afternoon, I pray that we may all be blessed with the courage and the power of God to do good and to reject evil. Amen


Teri said...

This is really good, Pam. I've contemplated this question before. Remember reading the Screwtape letters long ago by C.S. Lewis. It helped some, but left me with some questions. I think you make some really good points about the subtlties involved. Good to point out that non-churchy is not evil in itself. I think this is a solid way of narrowing down what evil is in simple terms.

"Evil seeks to diminish human beings both as individuals and as communities. Evil seeks power over others with the objective of instilling fear and chaos and taking away autonomy."

That's a really good definition. I can't think of anything that would fall outside of that--it gets at the root of it.

I've been blessed in the Methodist Church to bump into many good preachers with sermons that teach well. This is one of them.


PamBG said...

Thank you for your kind words, Teri. :-)