Sunday, January 29, 2012

“but deliver us from evil”

At each celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the celebrant invites the congregation with the words “And now, as our Savior Jesus Christ has taught us, we are bold to say…” and the whole praying assembly then recites the Lord’s Prayer. Assuming that you have an exemplary Sunday attendance, you would have said it at least 52 times in any given year. 

And if your churchmanship includes a daily recitation of it, you would have done this for 365 days. Plus one day, if it’s a Leap Year.

There is a phrase in that prayer that I have found of great interest. It’s the one that says:
“And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Do you think of a specific “evil” that you want to be delivered from? In other words, “ What comes to your mind when you say “but deliver us from evil”? Do you think of “evil” in terms of its global implications as in global terrorism? Do you think of “evil” to include atrocities conducted by gangs, felons or drug dealers who destroy so many young lives? I’d like to know what comes to Shirley’s mind, when she says  “but deliver us from evil” knowing that her purse was lifted last Sunday.

When we say the word “evil”, we can associate it with many things, places and people. But it’s not common for us to associate it with the setting where Jesus at one time met “evil”— in the synagogue, in a place of worship that we, Christians, would call “church”! We usually think of such places as holy and sacred and, therefore, a place where “no evil can reside”.

The church, where religious people gather, where the Word is preached; where faith is taught and God is worshiped is not where you encounter “evil”. This is an affirmation that Christians continue to hold dear in their hearts but which, every now and then, gets blemished by all sorts of scandals. Much to our surprise, the very institution where evil is decried and evil is preached against, evil is pretty much alive, well and actively engaged.

Have you seen the movie “Doubt”? If not, rent and watch it. This movie is about a nun who was beginning to “doubt” the over fondness of one priest to a young Afro American pupil.
The plot of this movie alludes to actual stories of how evil has manifested itself in the Church in the form of child sexual abuse – and the institutional cover-up that has so often followed it.

Or how about the media coverage about a group of fundamentalist Christians who held “God-hates-fags” rallies at the funeral services of honorable young servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan?

If you have seen these images, you have seen “evil” at work through the church even while the church thinks it is opposing evil. Sometimes it is not until long after the evil has inflicted itself on innocent people and destroyed their lives that we become aware and realize that what we deemed so right was actually so terribly wrong.

 While there’s no doubt that we continue to defend the integrity of the church, there is, however, a steady flow of sinfulness that creeps on the whole body of believers!  Hence, it proves to be difficult for religious people to see evil at work within and through our own self-righteous selves.

The gospel lesson we just heard is quite interesting; especially with the implication it has with finding evil in the church. What we have here is a story about a demon crying out from within a man in the synagogue blurting:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us?”

Notice that Mark the Evangelist has no record of Jesus doing anything unusual to provoke this outburst from the demon. All we are told is that Jesus taught and he must have done an excellent job since the worshipping community really admired him. They said he did it better than the scribes. Then Mark adds that soon thereafter, a man with an unclean spirit cried out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us?”

Was there anything wrong with what Jesus said? Perhaps, the reason for this outburst could be found in what he said. Reading between the lines, we could very well claim that there was. We know that all of Jesus’ teaching centers on the one foundational doctrine, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

Basically, Jesus’ teachings are founded on this; that we should “love the Lord your God and your neighbor”. This, we are told, sums up the whole of the law and the prophets. This truth, the very thing God requires of us, was the one that must have caused the demon that possessed the man in the synagogue to go ballistic! The demon blurted: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

Now there is a great truth to be found in these words spoken by the evil spirit – a truth that every person here today needs to listen to and take seriously. The “evil” one, personified by the demon that possessed this man, revealed what it is most afraid of, and how we can defeat the “evil” one! It’s the message: “Love God, and love your neighbor.”

 I realize that this appears to be a simplistic claim but I’m quite sure that there is nothing that frightens evil more than that message. When the demon heard those words in the synagogue that Sabbath, the demon knew its days were over. Why? You see, here is how evil operates. First, by converting our love of God into love of the Self, and then by turning neighbor against neighbor. Evil begins to flourish when we convert our love for God into self-love. How? Think for a minute. What happens when we make that shift? The answer is quite obvious.  When the prime motivator of everything we think and do shifts from our being the child of God, whose purpose in life is to love God and God alone, to our being the “Master” of the Self, we end up turning against each other! In other words, when we convert our love of God to the love of Self, evil begins to reside in our being and we distance ourselves from God farther and farther.

Yesterday, as we were heading back to Holy Child & St. Martin’s in Daly City, I made comment to both Anne and Faye about the fact that the church site was one if not the best location in that city. Back then in the early 50’s, those who came out of the church building would have had an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. What a great sight!

Times have changed. Their site has, as well. For financial reasons, the church sold that part of their property and today, there are houses obstructing that beautiful view. You now have to navigate a bit in order to have a good view of the still and serene body of water. Back when I was their Vicar, each time I walk toward that church, I always think back at the time when the congregation of what was then known as St. Martin fell in love with the gift of property given to them by the developer Mr. Doelger and how they enjoyed the fruit of his vision about the layout of the land.

I make mention of this change as an example of how our lives are radically altered when things clutter or obstruct our usual beautiful relationship with each other. When we lose sight of the primacy of God in our lives and supplant it with the love of the Self, we also open other doors in our lives from which the Evil one could enter. When we allow that to happen, when evil gets a foothold in our lives, we turn against each other, neighbor turns against neighbor, and the cause of God in our lives is thereby diminished.

 The worse part is that that radical change does not only take place in our individual and private lives but also in the life and work of our collective gathering, the church. As implied in the reference I made about the movie “Doubt” there had been cases of “evil” getting foothold in the church; in the very lives of church leaders who vowed to be icons of God’s love to others entrusted to their care. That supplanting of the love of the self may have allowed them to shift from the primacy of God in their lives to something else.

This could be one of the “evils” in the church that we pray to be delivered from. There are, indeed, other stories of scandal that rock the church and they’re not limited to those who have the vow of celibacy. Such scandal happens and there are other occasions of the blurting of “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” “Have you come to destroy us?”

One evil in the church that we hope to be “delivered from” is the evil of indifference that continue to be felt in the church. This is manifested in the church’s silence when their prophetic ministry is badly needed in order to address peace and justice issues. There is that indifference to the plight of those who face the danger of persecution simply because of differences in their culture; racial or otherwise. There is also that evil of smugness and of complacency brought about by the love of the self and the status quo rather than the love of God. If we open our eyes and our ears and our hearts, we will hear other stories; stories of the reality which otherwise would not have been told.

And so, the next question that we most likely would ask is: “How do we fight against that”? If Jesus’ message of radical love based on the summary of the law was indeed the reason for the demon’s blurting, perhaps we could follow the same line of argument and claim that in order to disarm the power of evil, we need to re-commit ourselves to loving God and loving our neighbor. I believe we can buy this logic, can’t we?

My friends in Christ, we need to bring back the centrality of the love of God in our hearts and in our lives. We need to let the love of God reclaim our lives. We need to allow the very Body of Christ that has somehow got so overly divided be healed from the sinfulness it is guilty of. We need to cast away the works of darkness with the words of God’s love and forgiveness. We need to redefine the mission of the church to include a stand against peace and justice issues.

Indeed, if we pledge our lives as based on God’s love we then could silence the very “demons” that may have lurked somewhere within us.  We need to pledge to live a way of life with Christ at its center and loving God and neighbor as its only work.

Recall, once more, the story of Jesus casting out the demon from the man in the synagogue. Whatever Jesus told the “evil” one, and I’m sure it was based on the love of God and loving the neighbor, however he said it, it must have had the power to set him free from the evil powers that threatened to destroy him. The man became well, and whole, and set free to live life for all it’s worth. So could we, if only we are bold enough to defy the allurement of shifting from the love of God to the love of the Self. And so could the church. If she makes anther misgiving, repent form it and allow the love of God to once again underscore all her undertakings. May the Church, with the primacy of the love of God in their collective disposition, be healed and renewed.

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