Sermon: Evil

It is easy to find people and groups to blame for what happened in Orlando, but is that what our faith calls us to do?


220px-Baal_thunderbolt_Louvre_AO15775
A 14 century BCE stele showing the Sidonian God Baal (with Thunderbolt)

NB: This video by Amaryllis Fox was shown before the start of the sermon, and is referred-to during the course of it.

You know – with regards to the recent events in Orlando, we have once again resorted to the same old game of accusation and counter-accusation: “Who’s fault is it?”

Is it the Muslims?  ISIS?  Gays?  The NRA? (Well …)  Maybe Mr. Trump?

Blaming assumes we can have winners and losers; but nobody ever wins. How long will we continue this mindless charade?

Look: 50 people died, and another 53 were hospitalized.  Uncounted others lost loved ones, many more will be dealing for the rest of their lives with the physical and emotional trauma they experienced that night, or caring for others forever scarred by that attack.

We see pain erupting from within the LGBTQ community because of this. You can understand why: places like Pulse are a refuge from the painful judgmental world they deal with every other moment of every day.  Such refuges are now no longer safe.  LGBTQ people have become a new target of domestic terrorism just when we finally seemed to be on the verge of forever setting aside homophobia.

For an LGBTQ person, this attack was very personal, and very scary: a very real threat to their own individual and communal existence, carried out against them purely because of who they are.  I can’t imagine feeling like I’m living with a target painted on my back, but I’m sure many of our kindred within the LGBTQ community feel exactly that way right now.

50 people died.  Thousands more will never escape the pain and fear planted within their souls that night.

Let’s focus on that.

Amaryllis Fox’s video highlights another aspect of this whole issue, the question of “What is Evil?” You see, the shooter saw those who were Gay as evil, as less than human, as vermin to be extinguished.

Now, we could dwell on how an AR-15 allowed him to greatly increase the carnage and terror he caused, which is true. But, the point needs to be made that even the taking of one life is one life too many. Yes, we need to consider, as a society, how to ensure that such tools are not in the wrong hands, if any hands at all; but, the focus of this sermon is on the evil that was within the shooter, an evil that used such tools to cause great loss and pain. And although it is hard to hear this, such evil is within all of us.

Amaryllis Fox said the same thing in reverse: she said that we all see ourselves as the good guy, and we are. The problem comes when we see the other as the bad guy. We do not see them as they see themselves, and we dismiss what they have to say before they even say anything at all, because we’ve already judged them to be evil.

And so I wonder about the story of Elijah from this morning’s reading. But, to do that, I want to back up to the passage just before this morning’s reading.

Here, we see that Elijah claimed – immediately after he rebuilt the altar – that he was doing all things according to the Lord’s bidding. Then the fire of the Lord comes down and Elijah’s altar and everything around it are consumed.

And then Elijah yells “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape!” The people did so. Elijah led them down to a streambed, and they killed all the prophets.

The Lord commanded Elijah to challenge the prophets of Baal to that contest. The Lord commanded Elijah to rebuild the altar and to pray. But, Elijah says that all the Lord commanded him to do was complete when he stood before that altar, the massacre happened after that. We cannot tell whether it was the Lord’s will – or not – for Elijah to kill Jezebel’s 450 Prophets of Baal.

Biblical scholars tell us the cult of Baal had a profound influence on ancient Judaism. These ancient religions were siblings: sharing similar beliefs, similar traditions, similar language, and a great deal of common history. We see the cult of Baal and those who followed Baal portrayed as an enemy and as evil in the Bible, but the truth is far more complex than that. And, if God loves us all, and demands we love others in the same way, then how could God demand the deaths of so many, especially when they already had at least a glimpse of the truth of God as we know it? So, perhaps in the enthusiasm of his victory over his rivals, Elijah failed. He allowed his own desire for vengeance, his own fear and anger, to take control.

That night Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, sends a message to Elijah, saying “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one them [that is, her dead prophets] by tomorrow about this time.”

What did Elijah do? The man who had prophesied the drought in the first place, the man who had proved the superiority of his God over Jezebel’s God just a few hours earlier?

He ran, just like Fuzzball did – in a panic.  He ran out of the gates of the city and did not stop until he came to the southern tip of the Sinai, almost 200 miles away from the angry queen. He ran to the safest place he knew. He ran to the place where God had first revealed himself to the people of Israel. He ran to the place that the people of Israel thought-of as God’s home.

And on that mountain he hid in a cave and felt sorry for himself, all alone. Then God came to Elijah and said: “What are you doing here?”

Elijah replied “I have been very zealous for you. The Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.”  (Who’s “They”? Jezebel by herself is not a “they.”)

Elijah was whining, accusing God of allowing bad things to happen to him!

His brain was turned off, just like Fuzzball from this morning’s Message for All Ages.  All he was feeling was fear, and anger.

God told Elijah to stand outside the cave, and then passed by: a great wind came up, but God was not in the wind.  Then a great earthquake came, but God was not in the earthquake.  And then came a great fire, but God was not in the fire.

Then came silence. It says Elijah heard the silence. (…That’s an odd way to say it!)  Elijah covered his face, as Moses had done centuries ago on that same mountain, and stood outside the cave. God was in the Silence.

A voice asked again, “What are you doing here Elijah?” and Elijah answered exactly as he had before.

Elijah thought of God as a God of rules, no hint exists in the narrative up to this point that he saw God as a God of Love, or of Grace.

Elijah had acted just like Fuzzball: his panic was unreasoning; and he stopped running only when he reached the safest place he knew, God’s home: that mountain.

Actually, Fuzzball stopped running because he hit an immovable obstacle.  Come to think of it, God wasn’t going to move for Elijah, either. He listened to Elijah’s whining and told him to return – no excuses. Elijah was not to mope around and feel sorry for himself.  God knew all about tough love, long before we did.

What Elijah learned was that God was always there, within him. Not on some remote mountain. Yes, Elijah may have failed, may have done evil; but God was in Elijah’s corner no matter how badly he failed.  We all need to fail from time to time. It’s how we learn.

Elijah learned that God is not a transaction, like how those priests treated Baal: gods’ favor does not depend upon the quality and quantity of our worship and sacrifice.

Actually, turning faith into a transaction might be what evil is: it certainly seems that many who commit evil do so in an attempt to prove their faith or to “earn” greatness or favor in the eyes of others, including God. It may also be that they have no concept of grace, and so have a desperate need to expunge the things they find within themselves that they believe to be sin, and which they see no other way to atone-for.

But, Elijah learned, and so we have learned, that God will always Love and care for us, even when we fail, despite whatever failings we see within ourselves. And, Elijah learned that he had to own up to his failings – God was not going to let him blame anyone else!

And ultimately, that is our lesson today. We are all creatures of God. We all have flaws. We will all fail. No one is any less – or any more – evil than we are, in God’s eyes.  And often, what we see as our own flaws are the things God loves most about us.

I don’t claim to understand how this can be true, given what the shooters in Orlando and Charleston and Sandy Hook and Boulder and Columbine and so many other places have done.  I certainly can’t bring myself to love in that way: the pain those people caused is real, and extreme, and cannot be minimized or forgotten. But, we have to admit that their crimes, and the magnitude of them, was possible only because we – as a society – failed to prevent them from having access to the tools they used to commit their evil, and because they had not learned to trust in God’s love.  Ultimately, we failed them long before they failed us.

Whether we personally support allowing such tools to be made or sold – or not – is irrelevant, because as a nation, as a community, we have acquiesced and accustomed ourselves to their existence in our day-to-day lives. We have failed – again, but God has forgiven us, God loves us, and so commands that we turn back, as did Elijah, to continue the work of building the Kingdom for all; by sharing God’s grace with all, especially with those who have not yet found it.

May we never forget.

Amen.

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, June 19, 2016.

Sermon Audio:

Scripture Readings:
1 Kings 19:1-15a
1 Kings 18:36b-40

Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is a father of two (ages 28 & 7). He and his wife enjoy life near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PastorAllenV/ or on Twitter @allenvm3.

2 thoughts on “Sermon: Evil”

  1. Excellent perspective. Are you aware that one of the “similarities of language” between Yahwist and Baal cults was the very word you use, “Lord”? That’s basically what “Ba’al” means, a word that a woman might use to address her husband, same as “Adonai” (which I prefer to translate, more directly than with the article, “my lord,” if I use it at all).

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