A Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Transfiguration Sunday, February 22, 2004, dedicated to Lauren Faye Thompson on her baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(Part II of II in Sermon series "The Challenge of Evil")
Romans 7:14-25; Luke 9:28-36
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Since last Sunday morning, I have had a number of conversations face-to-face, by phone and through e-mail with a great number of folks about my sermon "Evil in Word and Deed." I found all these conversations and questions extremely helpful. Thanks for your positive, helpful, prayerful reflections on the sermon. Briefly, I would like to share a few of the questions and comments I received. This is something I almost never do. But, I feel this topic and the depth of your sharing deserves to be heard by more than the preacher.
One person asked, "Can Hitler be forgiven?" (A topic of a sermon in and of itself!). Another shared the struggle of being in medical settings where children arrive having been severely wounded by gunfire or abused by adults. As people seeking to save life and do good, and then faced with evil perpetrated against the young and innocent, how do we deal with our own feelings of retribution in reaction acts which violate life and everything we hold dear? Another raised questions about forgiving her assailant following a terribly violent act. Another stated clearly convictions that the man who brutally murdered his father should be put to death to end this evil person's reign of terror. Yet, another thanked me for my "big picture" overview of evil, but she asked how I would address personal behaviors which injure others as I approach questions on good and evil. Yet another shared stories of growing up in a theologically conservative home and church in which she found herself becoming paranoid about "the evil that surrounds us and is within us."
Consistently, the themes you have raised in your questions and comments are ones growing out of experiences in which you faced life destroying, life-sapping power. You named it to me, because you saw it at work before your eyes. Evil is a real spirit of unreality. Again paraphrasing M. Scott Peck from last week's sermon:
"Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which knowingly and systematically opposes the life force. It has to do with killing. Evil can kill the body. It can kill the soul. Evil can kill the spirit. It is a force residing either inside or outside of human beings that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that force - again - either inside or outside of human beings that seeks to give life, promote life, restore life, and liveliness." (As quoted from "Evil in Word and Deed," sermon by Rev. Tim Ahrens, 2/15/04).
Tom Brownfield wrote an excellent three-page "Memorandum" entitled "Some Thoughts on Evil." Tom, has given me permission to quote him. Quoting the introduction of Elaine Pagels' 1995 book, The Origin of Satan:
What fascinates us about Satan is the way he expresses qualities that go beyond what we ordinarily recognize as human. Satan evokes more than the greed, envy, lust and anger we identify with our own worst impulses, and more than what we call brutality, which to human beings a resemblance to animals ("Brutes."). Thousands of years have characterized Satan as a spirit. Originally he was one of God's angels, but a fallen one. Now he stands (apart from) and in open rebellion against God, and in every frustrated rage he mirrors aspects of our own confrontations with otherness. Many people have claimed to see him embodied at certain times in individuals and groups that seem possessed by an intense spiritual passion, one that engages even our better qualities, like strength, intelligence, and devotion, but turns them toward destruction and takes pleasure in inflicting harm. Evil then, at its worst, seems to involve the supernatural - what we recognize, with a shudder, as the diabolic inverse of Martin Buber's characterization of God as "wholly other." (Pagels, The Origin of Satan, (Random House, 1995, xvii-xviii).
Tom reflects (and I agree), "It is that spiritual aspect of Evil that distinguishes it from someone acting out "a bad day . . . It transcends badness, malevolently thoughtful in its intent, and when we confront it we are deeply disturbed" (Brownfield, "Some Thoughts on Evil," page 1). I have said to many of you, I know something is evil when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up! Evil looks different and engenders a different response within the human spirit than other actions and behavior which disturb us or anger us. Evil makes us sick, and if it doesn't then we are in trouble, for our souls are in danger of falling into its grasp.
Even more than that, when we as individuals, as communities or even as a nation name something as evil and concentrate an intense reaction against it (such as happened in the "Red-bating" of the Joe McCarthy Era in the 1950's), the crusade that we begin is in serious danger of taking on the nature of evil itself, as it becomes something that is "not for God, within ourselves, but against the devil in others." The results of this effort, at best, leave the world the same as it was, or perceptibly worse than it was before the crusade began. By focusing on evil as something to be overcome rather than on Good as something to become manifest, we create occasions and opportunities for the wrong manifestation.
Therefore, do we stop naming evil as we see it? No! But, we proceed extremely carefully, acknowledging as we go our own `Shadow' ( to quote Carl Jung). For the shadow is the psychological and spiritual concept which refers to the dark, feared, unwanted side of our personality. Every one of us has a shadow side (I believe both psychologically and spiritually). It is important to remember, that "as each of us develops a conscious personality, we all seek to embody in ourselves a certain image of what we want to be like. Those qualities that could have become part of this conscious personality, but are not in accord with the person we want to be, are rejected and constitute the shadow personality" (John A. Sanford, Evil: The Shadow Side of Reality, The Crossroad Publishing Co., NY, NY, 1996, p. 49).
The Apostle Paul was dealing with his Shadow personality as he acknowledges the tumult of his soul. He writes in Romans 7:14ff:
"...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . I can will what is right. But, I cannot do it . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Through the struggles of his soul, Paul points us to the answer of how to overcome evil with good. Assailed inside and outside, Twisted and turned by the battle of his soul with evil, Paul proclaims that "God in Jesus Christ is our Lord," is the way through darkness to light. I couldn't agree more.
When faced with battles in our individual lives, Jesus Christ is our hope, our life, our light, our way through. When I have stared evil in the eye (and friends I have looked evil in the eye on a number of occasions, with the hair standing up on the back of my neck), I have said, either aloud or under my breath the words of Jesus when he was faced with such danger: "Be gone Satan!" Invoking the name of Jesus, when saying these words, I have felt the power and presence of God to cut through the dangers. I also have prayed the prayer of Jesus offered in Gethsemane on the mountainside of his perilous hour. As he heard the footsteps of soldiers and Judas, his disciple bearing down on him in the garden, Jesus prayed a prayer which should be on each of our hearts and minds in troubled times: "Father, I ask you to let this cup pass . . . But, even so, Lord, not my will, but your will be done."
As you seek to overcome evil in your life and in our times, I invite you to come to the mountaintop on this Transfiguration Sunday. See the changing face of Jesus as his visage illuminations the world. He shines like the sun. His essence, like Elijah and Moses before him, is changed from glory into glory! Not knowing what to say in the face of this astounding glorification, Peter responds, "Let's build a little house here to remember this great event." But, God has the last word. Speaking from the clouds, God says what God said when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan "This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!"
The word "listen" in the text literally means, "listen with a response of obedience." It's the kind of listening my mother would invite to participate in when I was growing up, "Timothy Carl, listen to what I am about to say . . . " That kind of listening means, "DO what I tell you." She was looking for an obedient response. Anything short of that was not even worth offering. No lip. Just listening. And once she was heard, she expected different behavior.
If you want a way through the perils of this life, listen! Listen to what God has to say. When faced with trials and temptations, when faced with evil, hear the word of God speaking to you! Naming you. Calling you to obedience. Calling you to faithful response.
Last week, I started this two-part sermon series by conjuring the image of September 11th and the Twin towers of the World Trade Center being struck by the evil acts of terrorists. In closing today, I return to 9/11/01. On that day, over 2,000 people died in the towers. But, through the courage, faith, and power of men dedicated to saving lives, well over 25,000 people escaped.
I recall one moment of a New York City TV reporter speaking that night of her "Savior." As she was reporting live, a firefighter grabbed her and sheltering her with his body and coat, covered her as Tower #1 came down behind them. Following this saving act, he turned to her and said, "Mam, are you all right?" She responded, "Yes, I am." He said, "I am going back in." With that, he headed back to Tower #2. Realizing what had happened, the reporter said, "I am sure he was in Tower #2 when it came down . . . O my God . . . He's gone," she concluded as stood up from the desk and left the camera, overcome with grief." She had been saved by an angel of God in human form - a man possessed by good.
In his album "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen talks of the courage of those who went up the stairs and into the fire. Giving voice to the grief of one firefighter's widow, he sings, "You gave your love to see, in fields of red and autumn brown, you gave your love to me and lay your young body down . . . I need you near, but love and duty called you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs into the fire. May your strength give us strength, May your faith give us faith, May your hope give us hope. May your love give us love . . . May your love bring us love." (Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising," "Into the Fire," 2002).
Overcoming evil with good. Ultimately it is all about the power of love. Even as he faced his own shadow, his own demons, The Apostle Paul knew who saved him from the power of evil. He knew the source of his peace of heart and mind. In Phillipians he writes: "May the peace of God, which passes human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phillipians 4:7).
And now, may God strengthen you in every imaginable way, as you, in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, overcome evil with Good. Amen.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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