Proper 21C: Evil is not the opposite of good

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“We will continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.”
Being: Lens
Doing: Staying in Relationship

“We will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”
Being: Openness
Doing: Making Amends

“We will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”

“We will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

“We will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

“I will, with God’s help.”


I made a discovery on the way to writing this sermon.
I’m in deep doo-doo, which means all of us are.

If you weren’t here last week,
or if the sermon was utterly forgettable,
here is a reminder that today
is the second of a multi-part sermon series
on the Baptismal Covenant,
which is our core description
of what it looks like to practice
Christian spirituality in 2016.

When I started last week,
I really thought it would just be two weeks.
But honestly, I felt compelled to dig into the covenant
in a way I have not done before in preaching.
I realize now
we are going to look at one promise at a time.

We are going to give each promise its due,
and there are five of them.
They are that important to us,
especially for us here at Trinity Geneva,
because we are at such a radical turning
point in the history of the congregation.

So I apologize for the fact
that the readings for each week
will likely not get any specific attention
while we are focusing on the promises of the covenant.

That is a pity too,
because that story from Jeremiah is as juicy
as the one from Luke is disturbing.
But they’ve been in front of us before
and they will come around again.

Now if you are unfamiliar
with the Baptismal Covenant
it is the hub
around which the wheel of our spirituality
is connected.
It is impossible for a wheel to work
without a hub
and it is impossible
for our notion of spiritual practice to work
without the five promises of this covenant.

The twentieth century turned out to be
a war of beliefs within Christianity
even as the world was going to war
for ideological, nationalistic, and economic reasons.
Christianity obsessed on what it believed
and who believed rightly
and who believed wrongly
and the rewards and consequences for each.
The Episcopal Church corrected its course
with the Baptismal Covenant,
focusing on Christian spiritual practice
rather than prescriptive doctrines and dogma.

So please remember as we go through the covenant
that it is not prescriptive but descriptive,
which is the norm in our faith tradition.

The Covenant is on the front of your Worship Guide
and last week I began with the first promise:
“Will you continue in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and the prayers?”

Now some people, like me,
are big picture,
focus-on-the-process kind of people;
we are touchy-feely, and a bit gooey.

Other people are into details
and task-oriented;
and they are tell-me-what-to-DO kind of people.

So in order to address both needs,
I am assigning a word or phrase to each promise:
one for Being
and one for Doing.
Think of it as something gushy and sticky
as well as something about task and procedure.

Last week the being word was “lens” –
referencing the fact
that all of us have one or more
interpretive lenses
through which we filter our experiences
and see the world around us.

The Baptismal Covenant is a lens
through which we can understand
Christian spirituality as a practice.

The doing word was “staying in relationship.”
Our spiritual practice requires us
to be in relationship with other people.

We stay in relationship to the community of the past,
whether that first generation following Jesus
or the latest generation.

Staying in relationship with the generations
means dealing with the discomfort
of relationship with people we do not agree with
and may not even like,
but who share our history and tradition
and seek to know God’s presence in this moment.

But that does not mean we must conform
to what earlier generations did and believed,
rather, that even as we diverge from the past
we make an effort to stay connected
in meaningful ways
because the core nature of our spirituality
is communal.
So whether the past generations
or the ones coming up,
our spiritual practice is to stay in relationship to them
as best we can
and in ways that are life-giving and meaningful.

Okay, that was last week.

This week we will look at
the second promise of the Baptismal Covenant.
As you can read on the bulletin cover it is:
“We will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”

The being-word for this promise is, feedback.
The doing-word for this promise is, making amends.

Resisting evil requires us not only to be open to feedback
but to actually court it,
and then of course, to hear it when it is offered.

FYI: evil is not the opposite of good, and
it is not some nasty supernatural power like the Satan.
Evil is a very human phenomenon
that each and every one of us is capable of doing
and we have already fallen into and practiced it.

Evil is the result of fragmentation –
when people become dis-integrated
and lose sight of the connections that actually exist.
To place it in a non-human context,
think of an eco-system that is in balance
verses one that has fallen out of balance.

Human beings have a history of encountering
Natural environments and other human communities
with certain blinders
to the balance of relationships that existed before.
As we enter them they can become distorted and imbalanced
because of our presence and behavior.

An easy example is natural wetlands.
As we know, wetlands
form at the edge of waterways and deltas
but we discovered the hard way,
they both regulate the flow of water
and ease the destruction of flooding,
not to mention they also filter toxins
and help to maintain water quality.

But until recently we saw wetlands as swamps
and an enemy to our interest in land development.
So we drained them.
Low and behold
we witnessed more and worse flooding,
greater and more devastating pollution,
and the disappearance of animal species.
That is a perfect example of human evil in action.

When we are self-orbiting
we see everything and everyone
as objects of our desire and use.
We treat them like objects for us
rather than perceive the intricate relationships
that existed before we entered the scene.
We see only the relationship
between the object and our desire,
and ignore or deny the consequences
of disturbing and thwarting the other relationships.

So our self-orbit
usually leads to the fragmentation of relationships
and that inevitably causes what we associate with evil:
destruction, violence, and alienation.

This is true on a personal level,
in our one-on-one relationships,
as well as in communities
and in the natural environment.
When we pursue our self-interests
WITHOUT a deeper and more pervasive perspective
on how we are effecting and influencing our relationships
in the wider sphere, bad things happen.

Conversely, when we are fully awake
to the exquisite complexity of our relationships,
and keep present both our compassion and empathy,
it is much more difficult for us to knowingly
betray and abuse our commitments, values, and beliefs.

So this second promise
relates to our propensity to slavishly pursue
our own self-interests.

Resisting evil requires us to court feedback.

We actually need to set up feedback loops
so that we receive a steady flow
of other people’s perspectives.
Then we need to find ways to become open
to actually hear the feedback we are receiving.

Again, think of the natural environment.

Satellite images of changes in the polar ice caps,
and historical studies
gathered from core samples of rock and soil,
are feedback to us about climate change.

But the self-interests of some very wealthy and powerful
people and corporations
led to many people, for many years,
closing themselves to that feedback.
Denial of climate change
is the denial of obvious relationships that exist
and has led to further fragmentation.
That is evil.

Listening to feedback,
actually going out and asking for feedback,
and then listening to what it tell us
helps remediate against that kind of evil.

It is amazing how powerful feedback can be
because it is a kind of mirror.

When we can see and hear
how our behavior is affecting other people
and our empathy and compassion are plugged in,
it becomes harder and harder
to willingly abuse our relationships.
That is what it means to resist evil.

We must court feedback and then be open to it,
even when it makes us uncomfortable
and defensive and angry.

Now, having said that,
there are of course occasions
when the competing interests
of different communities and values,
leads to conflict that also fragments;
and sometimes fragmentation has to happen
before a beneficial reconciliation
or progress can be made.
Susan B. Anthony,
Frederick Douglas,
Dietrich Bonheoffer,
Rosa Parks,
Aung San Suu Kyi
are all examples of people who engaged in conflict
and sewed the seeds of fragmentation
on the way to a greater binding
of more and complete relationships.
Such people are obviously the source of feedback
that self-orbiting people in power
do not want to hear.
Still they create fragmentation
on the way to restoring balance.

But courting feedback
and finding ways to be open to it when it comes,
is a primary way to resist evil. It is a spiritual practice.
We need to do this as individuals
and as communities,
and as governments and corporations.

Resisting evil
is a core element of our Christian spiritual practice.
And it has a corollary:
Making amends when we fail.

We will fail,
we have failed,
we have and do engage in evil.
And we have gotten really bad at making amends.

Our legal system makes it excruciatingly difficult
and even hazardous to say, “I am sorry.”

But the process of acknowledging responsibility
for evil that ensues from our actions,
whether by intent or by accident,
whether we did it consciously or unconsciously,
is fundamental to healing
and reconciliation.
It is also just a very basic step
in how we learn to become better people.

When an alcoholic or drug user
decides to enter into the recovery process,
a fundamental moment in that process
is facing all of the harm he or she has done
and all the violations of relationship
he or she has engaged in.
THEN, he or she makes a list
of all the people
to which they need to make amends.

Amends are then made one by one
where to do so does not cause even greater harm.
How to make amends or reconciliation
is not prescriptive and will happen differently
with different people and different relationships.
But, and this is huge,
recovery is stunted right there
if personal acknowledgement of offense
and an intentional process of making amends
does not take place.

Recovery is in fact endangered
and will inevitably end
without the difficult and often brutal companions
of confession and reconciliation.

That element of recovery from addiction
is a metaphor for all of us
when it comes to dealing with the evil
we have participated in.

So when we engage in evil,
or when it is revealed to us that our actions
have caused and abetted in the fragmentation
of goodness and love and health –
our task,
our DO,
our practice…our Christian spirituality –
requires that we figure out the best way
to make amends and pursue reconciliation
in addition to ceasing the action that is causing harm.

So the second promise is resisting evil,
done most effectively by courting feedback;
and making amends,
which means changing our behavior and reconciling.

Next week we will focus on the practice of keeping a shorter distance between what we say we value
and how we live our lives. Stay tuned.