February 20, 2011

“Deliver Us From Evil”

Today is the eighth of a ten-week sermon series exploring the rich and multifaceted Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 6:9-13 & Romans 12:16-21

Listen to this sermon podcast here:  110222SermonPodcast

Franklin Circle Christian Church

Rev. Allen V. Harris

“Deliver us from evil.”  A simple request?  A heartfelt petition?  A desperate plea?  All the above?  Certainly, there is no doubt that evil exists in our world.  From human trafficking to child sex slaves…  From a global epidemic of hunger to a diminishing reserve of clean water…  From bullies in our classrooms that push our children to death to tyrants and terrorists around the globe who thrive on dealing with death.  From the bedroom to the boardroom, from the roadsides to the town centers, there is no shortage of examples of evil, even in this most-advanced twenty-first century.

If evil exists, how do we identify it, name it, in order to be, as Jesus prays, “delivered” from it?  I put this question out on the church’s Facebook page earlier this week, and received several helpful responses.  What is evil?  One person wrote, and another person concurred almost word-for-word:  “Evil – a word that belongs to humans only.  [It is] attacking another person, not only physical[ly], but emotional[ly] or spiritual[ly] – with the sole purpose of hurting them.”  This was echoed in another person’s response when she wrote, “Evil is the hurtful thoughts and words that live in the minds of humans.”  Another person focused on the embodiment of evil: Satan: “If we do something that pleases Satan and grieves God, it is evil.”

I would say that evil is the force or set of forces both within us and beyond us that cause us to do grievous harm to ourselves, to others, and to the fabric of community which binds us to one another.  Evil is more than sin, which is a breaking of our covenant with God, though it most certainly begins with and is built upon sin.  Evil is sin amplified, magnified, multiplied, intensified.  Evil is sin to the nth degree.

But right away in the responses I received online I begin to see an inconsistency or paradox in our understanding of evil.  Is evil a human condition or situation or is it embodied in some way in a particular form?  And, turning to the Bible, we will not easily solve this struggle.  Certainly there is ample scripture describing evil as embodied in a particular being, whether it is “satan,” “the devil,” “the evil one,” or something similar. (1)  But there are also places where evil seems less incarnate and more ethereal and hard to imagine, such as Ephesians 6’s famous reference to “principalities and powers” and the many images in Jesus’ dealings with demoniacs where the individuals seemed to be possessed more by spirits than beings, sometimes referred to individually and sometimes as a multitude (“Legion” or “unclean spirits.”). (2)

So to deal with this discrepancy in how we view evil, my partner, Craig, and I had to do some intensive research on evil.  We decided to consult the most up-to-date, reliable, and profound resource on evil: “Despicable Me,” the animated movie about villains and the motivations they have to do evil. (3)

“Despicable Me” tells the story of a supervillain, Gru, who is in competition with other villains to do the most despicable thing possible.  Now, this is a

Gru from the movie "Despicable Me"

children’s movie so there’s no “Hotel Rawanda” nor “Silence of the Lambs” here.  The most despicable act of evil Gru can think of is to steal the moon.  This is substantially more evil than one of his last acts of evil, which was to steal the

Gru from the movie "Despicable Me"

Jumbotron from Times Square with the help of his army of quirky little yellow creatures he appropriately calls “minions.”  Without giving away the movie’s storyline, which is truly a delightful tale, I would say that “Despicable Me” shows our need to have a figure, a being, as evil personified and by having an outside figure as the image of evil we tend to divide the world into two camps: good and evil, with ourselves more often than not on the “good” side, albeit always struggling with the “evil” side.  Although Gru clearly had three little “kittens” who were heaven-bent on making sure he struggled with the good side of life!

There are completely valid and understandable reasons for our tendency to want to envision evil in a particular being, an embodiment of evil as it were.  One of the primary stories of our faith, a core story as it were, appears to have a unique and captivating embodiment of evil in it: the snake in the Garden of Eden.  Traditional theology tells us that this is where it all began, the struggle between good and evil, and that the snake was the evil one.  Actually, in scripture he is only named as being “crafty” but never labeled the embodiment of evil or a minion of an evil “one.”

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553): Adam and Eve

In the same way, traditional theology maintains that the snake tempted Adam and Eve (mostly Eve by mis-guided theologians) to eat the apple (again, it’s actually only named as “fruit”) of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  They do, and “the eyes of both were open” and they started seeing life with a different set of eyes, a different set of values.

I’ve begun to reimagine this story as being less and less about evil and more and more about humanity becoming mature in its understanding of the world.  I take as my guide a marvelous book by the renowned Jewish writer, Harold S. Kushner, in his book “How Good Do We Have To Be?”  (4)  He says that rather than seeing this act of eating of the fruit of the tree as a sinful act that warranted one of the greatest acts of punishment of all time, expulsion from paradise, that instead this was an act of maturing, evolving, graduating in a sense from the uncomplicated and simple (simplistic?) world of animal life to the greatly complicated and infinitely more complex world of humanity.  This brave new world necessarily involves knowing life is more than mating and eating.  It is about thinking, acting, and being about such things as Good and Evil and the many choices we can and must make about those extremes and all the grey area in-between.

Kushner writes, I don’t believe that eating from the Tree of Knowledge was sinful.  I believe it was one of the bravest and most liberating events in the history of the human race.  Yes, its consequences were painful, in the same way that growing up and leaving your parental home can be painful, in the same way that undertaking the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood can be painful and leave you wondering, ‘Why did I ever give up my less-complicated life for these problems?’  But for the person who has experienced the complex, hard-earned satisfactions of human existence, there is no doubt that it is worth the pain.” (5)

I believe that the decision of the First Humans to eat of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was inevitable, and God knew that, planned for it, and perhaps even hoped for it all along, just as parents hope for their children to grow up and leave the nest empty with all the mixed emotions that go along with it.  Thus, the specific image of the snake, with all the history of his smarminess and craftiness in mind, becomes less and less important as the question of how we deal with living “east of Eden,” with this maturity, this newfound knowledge, this momentous decision-making grows in importance.

Gustave Doré, Depiction of Satan

Which is to say, for me, Jesus’ prayer “Deliver us from evil” becomes less and less a focus on escaping an evil “one,” trying to avoid the evil supervillian living in the big dark pointy house next door, and becomes more and more about how I’m going to be mature about making the myriad of decisions that confront me every day.  Somehow by making this prayer less about a personified individual and more about daily choices I am empowered to live more boldly in this struggle of life, a struggle which is within as well as around me.

Now, by relying less on an image of evil and focusing more on the choices that I have to make daily I don’t mean to imply evil is a simple and easy decision one makes.  No, it is still “powers and principalities” with which I must mightily contend.  In fact, this disembodiment of evil overwhelms me even more.  If evil isn’t simply that snarky neighbor or that deranged tyrant overseas, but “powers and principalities” that permeate our world, our nation, our cities and towns, our homes, and even our own hearts… then what are we to do?  We’re all infected! No one has escaped!  I want to throw up my hands and give up.  Maybe I’d prefer to imagine evil as Satan or the Devil.  At least my mind can contain and deal with one image.  What’s unseen and unknown is what overcomes me!

But, as the great twentieth century church leader and inspiration to Civil Rights organizers, the Rev. Howard Thurman, once wrote: “There is no need to fear evil.  There is every need to understand what it does, how it operates in the world, what it draws upon to sustain itself.  We must not shrink from the knowledge of the evilness of evil.” Thurman, living as an educated and faith-filled Black man in an age

Rev. Howard Thurman

when Jim Crow laws were still in effect throughout much of the country and Civil Rights, at least on paper, were only an object of one’s hopes and dreams, had every reason to fear evil.  But he did not.  Like the Psalmist, he put his hopes in something much deeper, much more sustaining, eternally stronger than any principality or power ever could even imagine being.  He put his trust in God.  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23)

Thurman wisely reminded us that the real target of evil is not the reduction of cities to rubble (think 9-11) nor the destruction of the body (think cancer or AIDS), but “the real target of evil is to corrupt the spirit” of humanity to give up our souls “to the contagion of inner disintegration.” The great deception, as he called it, was to give into the “mass attack of disillusionment and despair, distilled out of the collapse of hope.”  “Let us not be deceived.” he implores us, “ It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.”

It is just as important as ever to attend to the little graces by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.

Thurman concludes, “Therefore the evil in the world around us must not be allowed to move from without to within.  This would be to be overcome by evil.  To drink in the beauty that is within reach, to clothe one’s life with simple deeds of kindness, to keep alive a sensitiveness to the movement of the spirit of God in the quietness of the human heart and in the workings of the human mind – this is always the ultimate answer to the great deception.” (6)

And you all know this?  In answer to my question, “How are we ‘delivered’ from evil,” my Facebook folks wrote: “To be delivered from evil, one is stronger than those [hurtful] thoughts and words, having control over them so that they do not do harm to others.”  Another wrote that deliverance is about “ones personal relationship with God; faith; healing of the soul.  Without that the ‘victim’ of said evil will never get over it.”  The person who saw evil as incarnate in Satan indicated that “The best way to be delivered is never to get involved in sinful patterns of living by staying in God’s word and following [God’s] instructions for righteous living.”  One person even acknowledge the probability that not everyone will choose good over evil when she wrote, “At times you cannot be delivered from [evil] because God gave us free will.  Thus my deliverance is dependent upon the other person’s ability to hear and respond to the word of God.”

So, we pray the prayer Jesus taught us and ask the Divine to “deliver us from evil.”  Not just me, again, but us.  But do deliver us.  We can imagine that which we need delivering from as Satan, a being, a specific entity hell-bent on dragging us into the pit of destruction, or we can imagine evil as principalities and powers that are as much a part of our own soul as they are qualities of the world around us.  In any case, something needs to be done, and the first step is simple, within our own hearts and minds.  It is to “attend to the little graces by which the dignity of our lives is maintained and sustained.”  Just as Jesus did.  He confronted the great principalities and powers of his time, represented by the political and religious authorities around him and by the great epic Empire which ran roughshod over his people, like a chariot over ants.  But Jesus always attended to the “little graces” around him, the wine needed at the wedding party, the woman tugging at his garment or the beggar by the side of the road, and the children… the children whom he adored and lifted to his lap upon whom he would pour out his lavish attention.

As I said in the beginning, evil may be more than sin, but evil most certainly begins with sin.  Thus it’s opposite, deliverance, salvation, may ultimately be more than the “little graces” of life, but salvation most certainly begins with the little graces.  As this congregation has done for 169 years and counting, let us today recommit ourselves to being a healing, faithful place where we attend to the little graces of life, and by so doing, are delivered from evil.


(1) See  John 8:44, Matthew 12:25-28, Ephesians 6:10-12, and 1 John 5:19 just as examples.

(2) See Matthew 8:28ff, Mark 5:15ff, Luke 4:35ff,

(3) Official Website: http://www.despicableme.com/

(4) Harold S. Kushner, “How Good Do We Have To Be?” (Canada: Little, Brown, & Co., 1996), 181 pages.

(5) Ibid, p. 31.

(6) Howard Thurman, “Meditations Of The Heart” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1956 & 1981), pp. 110-111.