In the last fifteen years I have heard a lot of sermons—I figure over a thousand. Never—not once—have I heard a sermon about evil. It makes me wonder why the silence?
What is going on? Has talk of evil become passé? Why all the silence in the pulpit when it comes to this question of evil?
Maybe we preachers are uncomfortable with the question itself. After all preaching about evil demands that we look squarely at the role evil plays in our own lives—the evil we participate in, the evil we witness, and the evil that is inflicted on us. Those are hard places to go. Hard places for individuals to go and hard places for communities to go as well.
Maybe we preachers are more comfortable with questions about systemic evil—evil that operates at an arm’s length from us and from the communities we serve, evil that we witness in the powers and principalities that form the boundaries of our daily lives, evil that exists out there—economic exploitation, soul-crunching consumerism, rampant individualism—we all have our own lists.
Talk about evil—the kind that invades our individual lives and the lives we lead in community—is awkward, uncomfortable, some might say downright weird. The first time I heard my friend Eddie, a Jesuit trained in Sacramental Theology, talk about the devil as if he were a real force in people’s lives, I rolled my eyes. “What nonsense,” I said to myself.
And yet now I wonder. I wonder if there might be something to the notion of evil as a force at work in our world and in our own lives. I wonder if the question of evil at work in our lives—as individuals and as a community—is something we ignore at our peril. After all, evil does not disappear by our ignoring it or by our dismissing it as a quaint notion. Evil is real. Evil is present in our lives as individuals and in our common life as well. We can’t avoid it.
That’s something the early Christians, including the author of First Peter knew well. In the section we hear today, the author concludes with a stark warning, “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour”(1 Peter 5: 8). And in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus says, “I ask You to protect them from the evil one”(John 17: 15 b).
Evil. None of us escapes it in our lives—sometimes we’re on the giving end, sometimes we’re on the receiving end, and sometimes we’re in the middle witnessing it at work. I’ve come to think of evil as an opportunistic infection that attacks us—both individuals and communities—when and where we are most vulnerable. When we’re tired, afraid, insecure, unsure. When lines of authority and responsibility begin to blur. When we’re threatened by things we can’t control. Those are the times evil moves in on our weak spots—and we all have them as individuals and as the communities of which we are a part.
Like an infection left untreated, evil can be deadly. The early Christians were clear about this. They saw the danger evil posed to Christian community; they witnessed it’s baneful effects. They knew the toll an unbridled tongue, a self-centered approach, an arrogant attitude could exact on a community. Hence their frequent exhortations to unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, and, above all, humility.
How do we, as individuals and as a community, protect ourselves and one another from the infections of evil? The first line of defense is being healthy. Healthy individuals and healthy communities are clear about who they are and how they are to live with one another. When you’re clear about this, it’s hard for opportunistic infections to take hold.
The healthiest community I was ever a part of was an extraordinarily diverse Episcopal School—a community riddled with potential fault lines of division over race, religion, class, gender identity, sexual preference, and even allergies. This community knew how to stay healthy. They had some clear rules about how to live together in community. The first being “Go to someone who can do something about your issue”. Folks lived by that rule. When they had something to say, they said it face to face and that tended, in the words of the author of 1st Peter, to keep “tongues from evil” and “lips from speaking deceit”(1 Peter 3: 10). That tended to guard the community against infection.
But sometimes infections take hold. My doctor says that to keep opportunistic infections from turning deadly early recognition and early treatment are essential. You’d think that it would be easy to spot evil creeping in. But I wonder. The evil I’ve encountered in myself and witnessed at work in or on others usually isn’t very flamboyant. It’s the kind of thing that sneaks up on you. It comes in the small resentments, the old hurts we just don’t let go of, the wounds we nurse. It comes when we focus on our own stuff—our own position, our own importance, our own rights. It comes when we pick about little things. The early recognition necessary for effective treatment demands an awareness of those areas in ourselves and in our communities where infection is likely to take hold.
But what about the treatment? What treatment is there when toxic evil takes hold? The author of 1st Peter is clear about this. “Set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you,”(1 Peter 1: 13) he says to a community at sea in a world opposed to them. He closes with these words, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God….Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you”(1 Peter 5: 6-7)
I’m reminded of the hymn “All My Hope on God Is Founded”. Perhaps you know it. It goes like this.
All my hope on God is founded He doth still my trust renew, Me through change and chance He guideth, Only good and only true. God unknown, He alone Calls my heart to be His own.
How do we navigate the shoals of evil we encounter? By casting our anxieties and our lives on the One who created us and cares deeply for us. All our hope on God is founded.