by the Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
Today’s gospel tells the story of the first act of ministry Jesus does in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was baptized, he spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, he gathered a few disciples, and then he goes into the synagogue to teach. While Jesus was in the synagogue, right there, on his very first day of ministry — he is confronted by evil and casts it out.
Now we in The Episcopal Church generally don’t talk much about Satan or the forces of evil. We are often quick to downplay these sorts of passages.
But most of us preachers have done a disservice to our congregations. We’ve tamed down these passages to make them more manageable. We’ve preached the idea that those biblical characters who were “possessed” were really just epileptics or schizophrenics or had some other medical diagnoses that we can now name and manage and medicate.
But after this past year…after this past month…
On behalf of myself and most preachers in The Episcopal Church, I ask your forgiveness. I have neglected my duties by glossing over the truth that there is evil in this world. I have glossed over the truth that there are forces of evil rising up against the greater good of our world. By glossing over these facts — by being ignorant of these facts — we, good people, have allowed evil to grow.
We progressive Christians have not been trained up in how to gird ourselves for a battle between good and evil. We progressive Christians have focused so much on relief from suffering and respecting every human being that we have neglected our work to become “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Not that these are bad things. They are an important part of our faith — just not the totality.) We progressive Christians have not practiced the intense prayer, repentance and action that is necessary to battle and withstand assaults of evil.
I am deeply sorry for the harm that has been done because we are not ready to boldly stomp down evil wherever we find it.
The first act of ministry Jesus does is cast out evil. And he doesn’t just do this along the roadway, or in someone’s home. No. Jesus and his disciples encounter evil in the sacred place of worship. They are in God’s House. The evil was already there, living within a man in the midst of that Holy Space.
That sanctuary did not inoculate the faith community from evil welling up in their midst. Evil was living in the very midst of their religious life.
And we are seeing signs of that here, too, in 21st century America.
Christian Nationalism grows out of a perversion. It warps a person’s thinking away from the life and ministry and truth of Jesus, and towards focusing on ones’ own individual rights and freedoms.
Putting our own rights and freedoms first has nothing to do with the work and witness of Jesus. Jesus gave up every single right, every single freedom to be for us the atoning sacrifice so that each and every one of us can get right with God.
Paul, in today’s Epistle about not eating meat sacrificed to idols, makes it very clear that our Christian call involves giving up our own freedoms in order to support others.
What we saw on January 6th proclaimed in the name of Christianity? It’s blasphemy. It is evil, and it is not of God, and we–as followers of Jesus–can not allow this selfishness, this violence, this disregard of neighbor to continue.
And here’s where we come back to my apology. If I and my sibling preachers had been clear about the truth of evil in our world, and of our need to devote ourselves to prayer and repentance and action in order to be fit to stand up against this evil, we would be in a better place. But I’m not sure I could have conveyed the seriousness of the work ahead of us. Now you see. Now you know.
Jesus never calls us to demand our own rights. Jesus calls us to greater responsibility towards our neighbors. Always.
And now, we who are shocked and saddened about so much that has been revealed about our country in the last few years and just this month…We need to get more serious about Jesus’ call and claim on our lives.
This is our “bat signal.”
If you feel a call to fight the evil you see and hear about, it’s time to double-down on your commitment to the Christian life.
The Way of Love is the way to combat evil. These practices of Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest are what we all need to be engaging in regularly to be strong and ready to fight evil in our world.
Turn: Find ways our own thoughts and actions have been wrong, and turn away from those thoughts and actions.
Learn: Get in that Bible! Keep reading the stories of Jesus and God’s people. And don’t just keep this as “head knowledge.” Let the stories sink into your heart and soul and form you.
Pray: Pray daily. Pray for those who are sick or in need. Pray for those who are working against all sorts of evil. Pray for yourself: your own strength and courage and continued commitment to Jesus and his Way.
Worship: Yes, it’s weird not to be together in a building. But keep up with your worship. Watch our services. Read the Daily Office. Listen to music that draws you towards God and strengthens you.
Bless: Keep doing those things we are already good at. Give to help those in need. Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Help at a food distribution site. Share beauty with the world.
Go: Engage the world, in whatever way feels needed right now. Talk to someone who thinks differently than you. Write or call the people who make our laws. Volunteer for an agency working against evil in our world.
Rest: And this is just as crucial as all the others. Make time for good, deep rest. Regularly set down your burdens and responsibilities and let God take over. Give yourself time for deep rest and refreshment. We have needed this even more in the past year, and will continue to need so much of it for the work we are called to do.
1. Evil is real.
2. Evil is active and growing in our society, in our religion, and in our world.
3. We are not as prepared to battle evil as we should be. I am sorry.
4. Let’s start where we are and move forward.
5. The Way of Love is our training program: Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go and Rest.
6. God wins in the end. In the meantime, let’s make sure we’re following Jesus and his way of love.