Sermon Archives

Consuming Good and Evil

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Mar 12

Text: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4: 1-11

One of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., once opened a stand-up show in this way: “'My life is really evil,” C.K. says. “There are people who are starving in the world, and I drive an Infiniti. That's really evil.” He goes on:

"There are people who would just starve to death. That's all they ever did. There's people who are like born, and they go, "Oh, I'm hungry," and then they just die. And that's all they ever got to do. And meanwhile, I'm in my car, "boom, boom, pow," like having a great time and I sleep like a baby. It's totally my fault, 'cause I could trade my Infiniti for like a really good car, like a nice Ford Focus with no miles on it, and I'd get back like $20,000. And I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money, and every day I don't do it. Every day I make them die with my car.''

Gotta love Louis, right? As the video clip made the rounds, the internet lit up with ridiculously lengthy commentary parsing out and critiquing the moral value and philosophical logic of his argument, to which my response was “Give it a rest, people. The guy’s a comedian, not an ethicist. It’s a joke.” Besides, the most arresting part of the routine was that first line:“My life is really evil!” I mean who says that? Does he really think that? And was he joking? Or, is the joke on us because it makes us ask if our lives are ‘really evil’ too? No so funny, now, huh?  

Jokes aside, let me cut to the chase. Today’s sermon is about evil, the reality of evil: in ourselves, in our lives and in our world. Both of our scriptures today offer two direct encounters with evil. The first is in our text from Genesis. The second is in our gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness. In keeping with our Lenten theme, Resistance, Resilience and Rising, and given the increasing frequency with which very word “evil” is being evoked with reference to current events, these texts could not be more timely. 

First, Genesis. Many of us might just as soon wish we could exorcise this text from our scripture. We can’t help but come to it weighed down by centuries of misogynistic reading. We can’t help but hear it and conjure archaic notions of original sin that we’ve all somehow inherited from Adam and Eve’s— especially Eve’s— disobedience. As the feminist theologian Mary Daly writes, interpretations of this story have “projected a malignant image of the male-female relationship and of the ‘nature’ of women that is still deeply imbedded in the modern psyche.” (1)  Sadly, we know too well how that story goes. “Lock her up!” “Because it’s all her fault!”  And yet, precisely therein, in just that kind of scapegoating blame, we find a deeper, perhaps the deepest, paradigm of human evil, right at the core of the story.

Let’s take a closer look at the text. I need you to bear with me through a number of moves here. Consider first that the serpent and Eve are God’s creations. Together they notice, they are drawn in by, they earnestly want to join God in knowing more about the presence and reality of good and evil which is embodied here in a tree. This tree, by the way, is right smack in the middle of the Garden, at the center of their world, so it’s hard not to notice. Now consider that a profound transformation of human awareness ensues here, one rooted in a God-given sense of curiosity and wonder, rooted in Eve’s agency, in her choice to act out of freedom, maybe even in her choice to face consequences. Now, the story itself recognizes that this freedom is not without limits – God says they could freely eat of every tree in the garden but for one. So, what happens next: Adam and Eve together push the limits, just as we all do at times. And a distortion sets in with the serpent’s question to Eve which ultimately misrepresents God, depicting God as restrictive and depriving. God said you can eat freely of every tree but for the one. Every other tree! That’s a lot of freedom. But the serpent says: “Did God say you couldn’t eat of any tree?” Did you catch that spin? The serpent is saying here, in effect, ‘so did God really say you have no freedom? Did God really say you can’t do whatever you want?’  
The distortion continues in Eve’s response. Under some pressure from the serpent, she recounts her own version of what God told her. Eve recalls it this way: “But God said you shall not eat of the one in the middle, nor you shall touch it, or you will die!” Hold on a minute, Eve!  We’re on your side here but God never says ‘you can’t touch the tree!’  Eve misremembers God’s “instruction.”  The original “command” becomes even more burdensome! And at this point the wheels really start coming off. The Serpent just out and out starts speaking for God!  “You won’t die! God’s just saying that because God doesn’t want to be jealous.”  The serpent not only blatantly contradicts what God says, but starts assigning motives as well. Even that great bastion of fake news, CNN, couldn’t have misconstrued the story worse! 

Stepping back a bit, we need to ask: what’s really going on? Where is all this distortion and exaggeration and contradiction coming from and where is it leading? Ultimately, the story is one of increasing separation from God. They even start trying to tip-toe away from God even further, they start hiding themselves (having nothing to do with their sexuality by the way!). Ultimately, Adam and Eve start attaching to and putting their trust in sources that are not God, whether it’s a serpent, or Eve’s own memory and accounting of “the facts,” or Adam’s totally childish, unaccountable “she told me too” response. With this increasing sense of separation from God comes a decidedly distorted view of their own capacity and limitations, and a bigger appetite for a knowledge that proves way too much for them to hold.

Remember, God doesn’t say they can’t touch the tree – presumably it was good for them to have contact and to know intimately the presence of good and evil, right there in the center of the garden. But something about ingesting that knowledge, something about eating the fruit and having it inside of them was too much. It overwhelmed their mortal system. It introduced a foreign entity that did not belong. Separated from God, divided from one another, confused by their sources, they lose all sense of a compass or purpose that is beyond them. They take on themselves the power to determine who and what is good and evil in our lives and in our world. What happens next, in Adam’s childish, unaccountable, she-made-me-do-it response, sets in place a primordial paradigm and pattern of human sin that has wrought havoc in our world, let alone in our everyday relationships, for at least 3000 years. The paradigm is the human propensity to scapegoat, to finger point, to constantly project the evil within us. Is all of this reminding you of anyone, by the way?

If we still need a fall guy in our scripture story, it’s Adam not Eve; it’s his instinct to blame her for everything and to not own his part! But I’d caution us to be so quick to judge lest we ourselves embody the pattern. We see it throughout history. Eve is the primordial scapegoat and right along with her are all those “nasty women” that have followed in her footsteps!  Some have said this pattern of misogyny is Christianity’s true original sin. But we see it in Christianity’s other “original sin” - that sin of anti-Semitism that maintains and feeds off the canard that Jews are Christ-killers. I saw it in the recent and amazingly powerful documentary “I am Not Your Negro” when James Baldwin puts the piercing question to white America, asking in essence: ‘Why do you need a Negro in the first place?’ Except he didn’t say Negro. What he said was: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.” Why? Why? Because, somewhere deep in our hearts, we can’t stand the thought that we are not good, or that we are not good enough, or that we are not better-than; because, due to the ongoing whitewashing of our family, church and national histories, we are still to this day unable to fully account for— and repent of— the fact that we have ingested and projected an evil whose shadow is as long as the light of those so called truths we hold to be self-evident, shadows of white supremacist evil that are as long as the light of our cherished Declaration of the Independence!

The fact is, we are living east of Eden— far, far, far East of Eden. Most us, I’m sure, continue to like to think that we are good, especially as compared with all the evil around us. But there’s the rub. We can’t ingest knowledge of the good and call ourselves good without also ingesting knowledge of evil and at some level calling ourselves evil!  The great psychologist Carl Jung put it this way: “It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts.”  Jung continues, “The sight of evil kindles evil in the soul ─ there is no getting away from this fact… Indignation leaps up, angry cries of ‘Justice’ pursue the murderer, and they are louder, more impassioned and more charged with hate the more fiercely burns the fire of evil that has been lit in our souls.” (2)

Recently, a dear friend at the Mosque shared with me a despicably vitriolic, threatening voicemail that was left for them by an extremely disturbed, angry, hate-filled person. It was just a sample of what they deal with week in and week out. Listening to the recorded message brought me to tears and also to a deep rage at the fact that my brother had to deal with this insanity. I realized it didn’t only affect me, deeply. It infected me. Jung said of these moments, “True, we are innocent, we are the victims, robbed, betrayed, outraged [as I was]; and yet for all that, or precisely because of it, the flame of evil glowers in our moral indignation.”  

Can we recognize this flame of evil within us, that arises when we take in our daily digests of headlines or stories from neighbors or loved ones, that leaves our blood boiling and wanting to punch someone or something? How can we be sure of the line that separates passionate and righteous anger from something more untoward and unruly, from those responses that seek out a new scapegoat for our problems, a new source of all evil in the world that we want to cast out of office, out of our schools, out of our country because there is no place for any of that here – not in our Eden, as if it was ever our garden to begin with!

But it’s not just the vicious circle of so-called moral indignation. That is one level of evil’s infection that I worry about now and that we must stand watch against. But there’s another perhaps more insidious temptation I felt, the temptation to do everything I could to respond, and the sense that if I didn’t, I wasn’t a good person! Upon hearing that voicemail, I had to grapple with my human freedom and human limits. At the moment I ingested that voicemail, I felt a power surge for justice when ultimately I really needed to be grapple with my powerlessness. The surge was rooted in a distorted sense of self-reliance, as if I could do something to stop those calls from coming. The fact is, an encounter with evil demands a personal response from each of us! What’s also true is that many encounters with evil, like daily encounters, create a veritable tyranny of demands that is too much for our limited systems and limited schedules to bear.

To complicate matters even further, many of us are right now just beginning to unpack, just beginning to understand what it looks like to hold ourselves accountable for the vast and mighty distortions of our white supremacist history. We are just beginning to take stock of the distortions and lies we have ingested about what is the tragically racialized nature of human freedom and human limitation! We thought that having a seemingly secure attachment to a savior-like President Obama was enough to put a finger in that dyke for a time, at least to allow ourselves to pace our homework because, after all, we had a black president so there must be some progress, right? Yet now the wheels are coming off, as we are having a decidedly insecure attachment to a decidedly insecure, unpredictable, unreliable president— A president who is contradicting God’s word left and right, sowing vast amounts of confusion, and yet, ultimately, revealing something about how separate the soul of our nation has become from God, centuries after inheriting that American original sin of slavery and racism. Like it or not, truth of an evil that has been around us all the while is being revealed. And it’s distressing, to say the least. How do we witness it and respond as our God and our prophet Jesus would have us? 

A take away from our Genesis passage may be that when we consume evil, we can be consumed by it. We can become possessed by it. Meanwhile, if we refuse to resist it, if we refuse to see or at least touch it, if we try deny its reality, whether right at the center of our hearts or at the center or our church or at the center of this town, we might as well start feeding it. The Russian novelist and philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn once noted: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Amen. And this is precisely why we can ill afford to grow separate from God, especially in such a moment as this! Which brings me to touch briefly on our passage from Matthew.

Jesus encounters the devil for forty days in the wilderness. The devil tempts Jesus by trying to separate him from his utter reliance on God -- three times in three different ways. Jesus never bites! Maintaining his spiritual closeness and intimacy with God, aware of his human limits if only to maintain solidarity with suffering humanity, feasting only on God’s words as opposed to distorted promises the devil is making, Jesus doesn’t bite! He remains attached-at-the-hip to the source of his wisdom and purpose. He has no need to prove his goodness, his power, his immortality, in comparison to others. For him, God has supplied his every need already. God has told Jesus everything he needs to know to prepare him for his encounters with evil that will come. The key line came in the passage just before, when at Jesus’ baptism he hears a voice from the heavens: “You are my Beloved. With you, I am well pleased.” Recall that Adam and Eve were also called good by God. It all comes back to who is our source! We need to hear this good news of our belovedness from God and for God alone! Hearing it from any other source is more likely than not a distortion that will distract us from our reliance and attachment to God.

Friends, recent days have “brought burdens hard to bear,” to quote our opening hymn. I for one have not always been grateful or un-trembling in my response, try as I might. And we are not Jesus! We bite of that apple constantly. We can’t help ourselves. We are human. Perhaps the real question before us all is how can we seek to metabolize the hurt, the pain and the evil we consume? How can we metabolize it with the help of God’s compassion for us and for the world lest the evil that is within us metastasizes and either consumes us in guilt or shame or pours out in blame of others?

And just how can we increase our metabolism? If we take Jesus’ lead, we will put our trust and reliance in that ever-loving, ever-forgiving power of God. We will stay as closely connected to it as possible– attached-at-the-hip style. We will not let ourselves be distracted by lies we are told nor by our own exaggerations of our goodness. We will ask ourselves again and again what does it look like to hold ourselves accountable in these evil days. What does it look like to sit with the evils we deplore and let it be transformed within us by God’s love?

In this season of Lent, as we set our faces to Jerusalem with Jesus, as we seek to follow his path, to lean into and get in touch with those crucifying powers in our lives and our world, perhaps it is enough for today to wonder about what kind of help we need just to follow Jesus’ example in the desert. What spiritual resources do we need to be able to sit with evil, stare it in the face, daily, to not fall prey to its lies, nor it distortions, because we have our souls trained on the far deeper truth that we are loved and that we are good despite of our limitations. May this Lent be a time for us to practice this kind of unflinching honesty, penetrating self-awareness, and radical self-care and repentance. Through soulful reading of scripture, through soulful conversations with strangers and friends alike, through soulful worship and singing and breaking bread– may we, too, repent and turn again to a true reliance on God’s ever-loving, ever-gracious powers. Amen.

1) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, Beacon Press, 1985

2) Carl Jung, “Civilization in Translation”, from The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: The First Complete English Edition, Routledge, 2015