A few minutes ago we sang that great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” In it we sang a line that might have struck you as a little strange. It went,
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
“A world with devils filled,” it says. Sounds like something from a Mel Gibson movie, with its scary devil figure lurking in the background of the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Of course scripture itself sounds this way sometimes. “Be sober, be watchful,” the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament says. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”
Now this talk may sound fairly primitive, this notion that there are evil forces at work that seek to undo the world. Evil there certainly is in the behavior of some nations, but to talk that way is to miss the real complexity of evil. As the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn once put it:
If only there were vile people…committing evil deeds, and it were only 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. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
In fact, Episcopal priest George Ross wrote once of seeing a telephone booth in London with a sticker in it that said, “If you’re tired of sin, read John 3:16,” beneath which was a message from a different kind of evangelist who wrote, “If you are not tired of sin, call 721-2211.” In the human heart we have contradictory impulses at work.
You can always tell when Lent has arrived. All of a sudden talk of sin and evil come to center stage.
“Sin” is maybe the most loaded word in our Christian vocabulary. Many of us in our early years were pummeled with talk of our sinfulness, pummeled right out of church in many cases. And in many cases the dreaded word sin was really being spelled s-e-x, or in other cases f-u-n. If it was fun, it was probably a sin.
“Who needs all this talk of sin and evil devils?” we might well ask. Are we not enlightened modern people doing the best we can? Well, unfortunately, we need it.
A few years ago the Wall Street Journal in an editorial said just that. “When was the last time you had a good conversation about sin?” it asked, as it recounted the moral crises appearing daily on our televisions—bribes and payoffs in government, scandals in corporate life, divorce and the breakdown of the family, a culture addicted to just about anything you can name. And then the editorial said this:
Sin isn’t something that many people including most churches have spent much time talking or worrying about through the years of the [cultural and sexual] revolutions. But we will say this for sin; it at least offered a frame of reference for personal behavior. When the frame was dismantled, guilt wasn’t the only thing that fell away; we also lost the guide wire of personal responsibility.
…Everyone was left on his or her own. It now appears that many wrecked people could have used a road map.
So as much as we enlightened, sophisticated people would like to dispense with all this talk of sin and evil, we can’t. It allows us to name something we need to face: That we are up against destructive energies at work in us and in our world, that not only do we not live the lives that we would like to live—truthful, honest, responsible, loving—but we can’t. There is something inside us and around us that leads us to hurt others and ourselves—“the enemy of our human nature,” as St. Ignatius called it.
This is what has been called “the mystery of iniquity,” the fact that we encounter in our world unexplainable evil and that it’s inside us too. Our own lives are narrower, more frightened, and more morally compromised than we, or at least we in our best moments, would want.
The local news every day is filled with reports of acts of violence such as drug killings and domestic abuse and there are the unfathomable acts such as the random murders by unhappy teenagers at Columbine High School. Then, how do we begin to make sense of the genocide of even the last ten or fifteen years—in Bosnia and Rwanda, and now in Sudan?
Or on a more mundane level, why is it, after all, that we do things that we know are harmful to us or those around us, whether it is smoking or immoderate drinking or eating or working excessively? Why is it so easy to think more highly of ourselves, or less highly, than we should? Why are we often so good at nursing grudges?
We view our lives from the point of view of what suits us. Our self-absorption is pervasive. We discover that we are born into a world that is already caught in selfish and destructive patterns, and we soon take our place in those patterns. “Original sin,” the Church calls it. “The work of the devil,” to use the old mythological language. All part of the mystery of iniquity.
Jesus himself encounters this mystery of evil in the story of his temptation, which we heard in our gospel today. Just before his temptation Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan River with his intense experience of God’s call: “You are my son, my beloved,” the voice from heaven said, “in you I am well pleased.” And now, the very next thing that happens is that he goes into the wilderness for forty days, and there he is tempted by Satan.
The force of evil tries to convince him to take the gifts he has been given and to turn them to his own use. In Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels the devil is specific. Feed yourself by turning stones to bread, he says, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate your power, take control over all the kingdoms of the world for the small price of worshiping me. The devil urges Jesus to cling, to control, to protect himself, to prove himself, by using the power he has been given as his own. And that’s the way with us too.
In recent centuries the sin in which we all share has been reduced to individual wrong doings, each of them our privately chosen failing. But the deepest understanding of the mystery of iniquity has always been that it isn’t simply private, but something we all share in together. We are part of what our faith has called “the sin of the world.”
For one thing, you and I have a past. Some of us come from a part of the country where white prosperity was built first on slavery and then on systematic discrimination. Many of us have benefited from the industrial and corporate successes of America, which have made many ordinary workers labor for unfair wages or lose jobs, or work in dangerous conditions such as mines or unsafe factories. All of us live in a land that was taken away from Native Americans.
And our present isn’t so clean either. American prosperity continues to increase amidst the abject poverty of the rest of the world, and we use our mighty economic power to keep things that way. Some of the rugs we walk on were woven by child labor in Pakistan. Some of the clothes we wear are cheap because they have been made by people barely making a living wage in Mexico or Haiti. The gas we burn in our SUVs pollutes the air, warms the climate dangerously, and devastates wildlife when it is spilled.
We are all in this together. We all participate in the consequences of our economy, of our government, of the countless decisions made that benefit us and hurt others. Of course it’s natural to say, “Come on, I’m not personally responsible for those things. What do I have to do with an oil spill, or a drug shooting, or with kids on the street in Anacostia, or 12 year olds who makes the clothes I wear?” Tracing the connections isn’t always easy.
William Willimon, former dean of Duke University Chapel, wrote of a woman he knew who had just returned from visiting her father in his retirement in a golf commune in Florida. She said, “He spent the whole time talking about how nobody in America wanted to work, welfare moms were bearing scores of [illegitimate] babies to burden the future, and the world was going to hell. This,” she said, “from a man who has already spent the last ten years, and maybe will the last thirty living off a social security system he will take far more out of than he put in, whose plush retirement was purchased mainly through his sleazy sellout of his company, and who spent no more than a third of his entire life actually working.”
We are all implicated. “What’s wrong with the world?” someone once asked that wise old Christian G.K. Chesterton. “I am,” he said.
In this season of Lent we can finally tell the full truth. We can acknowledge that we are in over our heads. We can say that the good and true life we long for has eluded our grasp.
None of us is innately evil, my friends. But we are sinners. We are frightened and anxious, and because of that we are driven, self-protecting, and in our fear we buy into the sin of the world.
We need the church as a place that helps us see the full truth of our lives. And we also need a place to confess our caughtness in the evil of the world and to help us repent of our hardness of heart and be forgiven. So we come today into the presence of a God who hung on a cross to forgive and heal us. And because of that we can look at it all, knowing that there is nothing in us that can alienate us from God’s love.
Do you sense what a relief it is to talk about our sin? To glimpse that there is a way we were meant to live and a hopeful world we are meant to live in. As we name and repent of our caughtness, Christ comes to forgive us, and heal us, and help us live anew. I hope you’ll take some time in this season of Lent to pray through the Litany of Penitence in the Ash-Wednesday service of the Book of Common Prayer. It can help us to name the sin, the caughtness of our lives, so that we can be cleansed to start again.
I want to close with a poem of John Donne, who was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the 17th century. He was a brilliant and worldly man who knew how deeply he was caught up in the sin of the world himself.
Wilt thou forgive that sinn where I begunn,
Which is my sinn, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive those sinns, through which I runn,
And doe them still, though still I doe deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
for I have more.
Wilt though forgive that sinn, by which I have wonne
Others to sinn, and made my sinn their dore?
Wilt though forgive that sinn which I did shunne
A year or twoe, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
for I have more.
I have a sinn of fear, that when I have spun My last thred, I shall perish on the shore:
Sweare by thy self that at my Death thy Sunn
Shall shine as it shines nowe, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I have no more.
Today we gather as that light of Christ’s forgiveness shines on us, us sinners. That is the bright good news of this day. As the light of Christ’s forgiveness shines on us sinners, we are cleansed and healed once more.