One of the beautiful things about diversity in the world is the many languages available for us to use to express ourselves. From the visual fluency of American Sign Language to the abbreviated “text speak” of the online world, we have many options for fully articulating our feelings. My grandparents often used Yiddish words when English seemed insufficient, leading me to believe that there are emotions that can only be communicated in Yiddish. Lately, however, in reaction to the seemingly constant bad news that swirls around us, I have found myself muttering in Italian - one word, over and over again: Basta! Enough!
This past Thursday another mass shooting occurred in our country, in Alabama. This time it happened within the sanctified walls of an Episcopal Church. While this certainly doesn’t make it in any way more important or tragic than any of the other acts of violence that preceded it, it does bring the feelings of intrusion and danger one step closer to home. Members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills were enjoying a “boomers’” potluck when a man who was not a regular parishioner but who had sporadically attended services there, joined them. Like good Episcopalians, the group members encouraged him to participate; instead, he pulled out a handgun and opened fire, ultimately killing three members of the group. A fourth member subdued the shooter, preventing further deaths and enabling his arrest. This occurred on the eve of an anniversary commemoration for the nine people who were martyred in 2015 at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina while they were attending a Bible study. Basta! Enough!
Here at Grace, we change parts of our liturgy seasonally. This gives people an opportunity to connect with the Holy Spirit in diverse ways, as the unique words of each set of prayers cause us to consider what we are saying, what we believe, and, most importantly, to bring us fully into God’s presence. Some are more popular than others, but the prayer that has evoked the largest amount of controversy among our parishioners is the Confession of Sin that we are using this season after Pentecost. It is taken from one of the newer Episcopal liturgical resources, Enriching our Worship, and, just as the “new” Lord’s Prayer (which is now more than 40 years-old) caused dismay by changing the word “trespasses” to “sins,” so too has this prayer by changing the word “sin” to “evil.” In it, we repent of the evil that enslaves us - the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Some folks find this offensive, protesting, “I am not evil.”
The Oxford English Dictionary would disagree. In that secular tome, we find that the words “sin” and “evil” are synonymous. (The word trespass, which these days simply means “Get off my lawn!” is not listed). One wonders, if this is the case, why people react so emotionally to the idea that we have done evil. (By the way, the prayer doesn’t say we are evil, only that we are often under its sway and in need of cleansing from it.
I think this is because we cannot seem to help ourselves from thinking that there are levels of sin - beginning with accidentally letting out an “Oh fff-for the Love of God!” and progressing along a straight line to serial killing. We think that the fewer bad deeds we have done, the easier it will be for God to forgive us for them, and the higher likelihood that we will get into heaven. We believe that as long as there is someone more evil than we are, we are closer to the front of the line for salvation. This is why people love to find fault with one another, gleefully identifying the sins of others while ignoring what Jesus called “the beam” in our own eye.
This thinking is wrong – and completely incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. It is also a significant stumbling block for those who wish to follow Jesus and a significant source of sin – because it is so often used to lead believers astray. So, like Paul before me, I am going to try to explain why quoting random pieces of scripture out of sequence and using them to exclude certain groups and people from the community of Christ is heresy.
This is creation’s history with God as detailed in scripture: God made humanity and provided us with one rule – which we disobeyed. God then sent a simple set of summary laws for how we need to behave in order to be successful in the world that was created for us – and we disobeyed those too. God then sent generations of prophets to translate between God and the people – and the people killed them. Finally, finding no other recourse, God tore off a part of their divine self and sent it to live among us as one of us – and we killed him too. But God had learned a lesson. God knew that we were incapable of simply following the rules so we could live in the loving, life-giving community that was planned for us. That’s why God determined to take all of our sins, ingest them, suffer for them, and then absolve us from them -once and for all time. Our job now is to believe that we are already saved because of God’s sacrifice – but we can’t even get that right. Our fear and pride repeatedly prevent us from accepting both God and God’s gift of salvation. We still think we can obtain a perfected state through our own actions. It doesn’t help that this idea is central to our American culture of self-reliance and individuality, and that many preachers and teachers of the way of Christ continue to tell people that it is true. It is not. St. Paul is very clear on this point: God’s laws were an effort to help us grow as humans in order to prepare us for the internal challenge that is having faith. Faith provides a pathway to salvation for all people - removing the barriers inadvertently established by those attempting to follow the law. That is why, as Christians, we no longer depend on the law for salvation, resting solely on the belief that the promise of God has been fulfilled in Jesus. We have faith in God – not in ourselves. That’s why there is no such thing as more or less evil. All thoughts and acts that separate us from God and one another – everything we do that thwarts the coming of the Beloved Community of God – is equally sinful, equally evil.
This is not something that the swineherds and people of the country of the Gerasenes wanted to hear. They had separated themselves from what they saw as the unique and extreme evil of the man possessed by the Legion – safely shackling him lest he intrude on their normal lives. They reasoned that he was beyond redemption – while they, with their smaller sins were far more salvageable. Rather than being excited when they found that Jesus could overcome this evil power, they were frightened – because it showed them that we cannot cleanse evil by separating ourselves from it or following simple rules to avoid it, but God can. Evil is in and around all of us – and for that reason only by giving up our desire for power and control and having faith in God’s constancy, can it be cleansed.
Right now, our country is possessed by a legion of demons: violence, lies, hatred, prejudice, selfishness, greed, and hard-heartedness. Like the Gerasene demoniac, we are tormented - crying out to God with heaviness in our souls, praying for the presence of God like dehydrated deer longing for water. We are surrounded by noise, noise, noise. As a result, we have stopped our ears – which has caused us to forget that God is still with us and that God continues to speak to us -through scripture, prayer, and, most significantly, through the faithful words and actions of other human beings.
Beloved, do not be distracted by the fires, the earthquakes, and the winds that shake our faith. Yes, we are angry and afraid – but no more than Elijah, or Paul, or the swineherds of Gerasene. Those feelings are natural, but they are not faithful. True faith demands that we listen through the noise for the voice of God. True faith demands that we put aside our fear and follow the way of Jesus, knowing that doing so will cleanse all evil from our word. True faith will provide us with the spiritual refreshment for which we are so desperate. True faith is enough. AMEN.