“In the Face of Evil”
A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church – UCC
based on the theme: Where Your Journey Meets Jesus
March 20, 2022
Luke 13:1-5 NRSV
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
So life is a journey. On this journey we encounter many things. Some are good, some are bad, and some are down-right evil. If we are lucky, we aren’t the subjects of the evil, but even if we are innocent bystanders, as people of faith, how do we respond? Look away? Walk fast the other direction? Jump in and punch the bully or shoot the perp? As I have tried to depict this Lenten season as a journey of faith, today we come to a hard rock in the road, and we can’t get around it without dealing with it.
There are times when I pick a Scripture to preach on knowing I am going to hate it. Mostly they are ones like this that say stuff I don’t want to hear, stuff I know you don’t want to hear. And I don’t want to preach it. So why do it? Because if I don’t then I am failing at my ordination vows, to preach the word in season and out – which means when it is convenient and when it is not. This is an inconvenient word and I would rather skip it, but I can’t and I won’t. There are times on our life journey’s where we come face to face with evil and injustice and it is important we have at least considered how our faith shapes our response?
The Scripture tells us some people came to ask Jesus about some events that truly seem evil and unjust. Evidently Governor Pilate, known for his brutal ways, had killed some folks who had come to worship the Jewish God and mixed their blood with the sacrifice they were making in the Temple. And Jesus compares this to the collapse of a tower that took the lives of some innocent bystanders there in Jerusalem. These are the types of stories that make us wonder about the nature of evil in our world. They are tough stories to hear.
Jesus’ response is just as difficult to hear: unless you repent you will all perish just as they did. What? Is Jesus saying those who suffer these kinds of things deserved them, that they could have avoided them if they were repentant? I don’t think so. I’m at a bit of a loss and my first thought is the translators missed something. In fact, I think his words challenge us to seek a deeper meaning for the word “repent” than we may have given it before now.
When I hear the word “repent” I think of the way I hear it used in some Christian circles. It seems like a small little word basically meaning stop your bad habits, or quit sinning, or feel real bad for what you have done. Some slightly more sophisticated versions talk about doing a 180 degree turn in your life. Well, my WHOLE life isn’t really THAT bad, [I don’t think.] Jesus says, “unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” Is there a way to understand that that makes more sense?
Perhaps you have heard the saying, “he [or she] has the patience of Job.” But Job really wasn’t all that patient in his suffering. Job not only did not suffer silently, he gave his friends, and God, and earful about his suffering. Then God appears to him and gives Job the business: basically God says, I created the whole universe, where were you when I created all this? In short, who are you to question my work? Ouch! Job’s response has often been translated as kind of saying, “excuse me I am shutting up.” Literally, it is usually translated as “I repent in dust and ashes.”
Abraham Reisman, [The Impatience of Job, 3/13/22] studied the Hebrew and suggests that the better understanding of Job’s words are a kind of challenge back to God: essentially, we may understand Job’s words to mean more like, “This is why I am fed up, I take pity on dust and ashes,” or, “I have compassion on our mortal plight, that is why I speak.” It’s almost like saying, “I take pity on humans, why don’t you, God?” That takes a lot of chutzpah! The sense is that life is short, evil is real, suffering is unexplainable, why don’t you do better God? And we are told God speaks highly of Job saying this, commending Job for speaking “honestly,” while God chastises the three friends who have not.
What that says about God may seem disturbing! It suggests God does not control everything, God does not cause everything. We crave explanations for why things happen. We want to believe that God is in control of everything. But when real evil happens like murdering innocent worshippers and mixing their blood with their offering, or when catastrophes like towers falling on people results in death we have a hard time finding explanations. We have a hard time believing God caused these things, and we are right to struggle with these things.
As much as we wish that life is logical and predictable and that God causes everything to happen, as deeply as we crave order, meaning, and logical outcomes life is often short, hard, and evil is real. Ask the people of Haiti, some of the poorest, most long-suffering people who ever lived. Just a week ago about 150 of them arrived on a leaky, overcrowded boat that ran aground off one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the Keys. Ask the people of Ukraine. Ask your neighbor whose husband has dementia and often verbally abuses her, often becomes unmanageable, when he was the most tender, caring man a wife could ever have before. Maybe speaking the truth about God means rethinking what causes suffering and evil.
One writer invites us to consider that, “Repentance is not to feel sorry, or even to reform our personal morality. It means to change our [worldview]; it’s a wholesale change in how we understand everything. … including … a reorientation … toward God. This will certainly change our behavior, but the change is a consequence of seeing the world in a different way. ,,, ‘Jesus’ call to repent is not escapism or a minimization of life’s hardships. It means coming to discover God as the source of … belonging, meaning and hope in this difficult life. Repentance [is] the change that occurs within us when God meets us and reshapes our understanding.’” [ Andrew Prior, onemansweb.org, 2016.]
Our life journey’s almost always leads us into the face of evil at some point. And let me also say, one always has to be careful about declaring something, or someone, evil. It cannot be simply because I don’t like something or someone. But if I am aware of evil, and if I have repented of believing that God causes or uses evil to teach lessons, or to punish, then what do I do, what do I say? In the face of evil our faith calls us to do more than simply complain and shake our heads in apathetic impotence. The quote on the front of our bulletin sums it up for me: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Most of you probably know who Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote these words was. He was a pastor and professor of theology in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. It might shock you to know that Bonhoeffer was so convinced that he was living in the face of such evil, that he not only spoke, he acted: he participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler, which failed. Bonhoeffer was arrested and placed in prison and executed just weeks before the war ended. We may struggle with the morality of seeking to kill another human being for any reason, but do we also struggle with remaining silent or taking no action while others are being killed?
Here’s a current example of resisting evil: there is an interesting effort to defeat the invasion of Ukraine by those who do not carry guns but who are “tech-nerds.” You probably know that there are literally thousands of people who have been rallied by the Ukrainian government to “cyber-hack” any and all of Russia’s government and economic internet. They are actively interfering to make it more difficult for Russia to commit the evils they are committing. They are not only speaking up against evil but acting.
Over the past few years, it seems that there has been a significant rise of evil in our own country. Intentional acts – not incidental – of violence and injustice, racial hatred and actions, overt efforts to defy the Constitution, while claiming to save the Constitution, acts of fascism and strong-man tactics that define fascist governments have been lauded as protecting democracy – the list is frightening and dismaying. It is incredible how often language gets twisted and truth gets strangled. Even more incredible are claims that those who point out the lies and the disinformation are lying.
Most of us have simply shaken our head at the tactics many are using. We are not willing to resort to the violence others use. We want things to “go back to normal.” We aren’t willing to use the tactics of language-twisting, “gaslighting”, and flat out lies that support these behaviors. But we must remember that evil flourishes where it is not opposed. Bullies do not quit until they are faced down by strength. The difficulty is individually those on the side of what is good and right find it hard to believe that others would do the things they do to protect their own evil deeds. We are generally not prepared to act strongly in the face of bullying tactics. But the time may come when we have to rethink what it means to “repent” of our world-view that “everything will turn out alright” if we just put our heads down and ignore it.
I hear Jesus challenging us to repent of a worldview that says God controls everything and sit idly by while people suffer. We may not want to “take up arms” or “march on city hall,” but be careful or soon we may be the refugees on a sinking freighter trying to land in safety on a foreign shore. We may be the ones watching a tyrant’s tanks rolling down our streets to impose his world view by violent power. These things are unpleasant. They make us squirm. We want to run away. We may be the innocent ones, but the tower may still fall on us. We may not have been doing anything but trying to worship our God when evil strikes and mixes our blood with our sacrifices. Let us repent of claiming powerlessness or blaming God.
So where is God? I believe God is present. Immanuel is the word Scripture uses to describe God’s presence in Jesus. God is with us. But we cannot wait for God to wave a magic wand or to rescue us out of evil by some “Rapture.” God is with us to strengthen our spirits when tyrants use evil tactics to subvert truth and justice. God’s spirit calls us to speak, to act and to be strong in the face of catastrophe and evil. The resurrection is God’s promise that Christ is with us.
I wish I could ignore this passage of Scripture. I would rather skip it altogether and go on to something sunny, and nice, and joyful. But I believe Scripture speaks truth and I believe truth is often something we don’t want to hear. And in the face of evil, if all we hear is our own silence, then we too risk being complicit with evil. Let us do what we can to make clear that we believe in a God of justice, a God of goodness, a God of love, even in the face of catastrophes and evil. AMEN.