The Spiritual Forces of Evil — and Us

A sermon preached at Christ Church Seikokai, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on August 23, 2015.

A dozen years ago we had a storm in Connecticut in October that did unbelievable damage. The leaves were still on the trees, but down came a wet and heavy snow that tore branches from trees and brought down power lines throughout the state.  For weeks afterward we had stories of people shivering blizzardin unheated homes, reading by candlelight, food melting in the freezer, stores that couldn’t open and millions of dollars lost in business. I remember reading about investigations into what went wrong and how one or two executives were fired but of course it quickly faded from the headlines and whether anything has really changed we won’t know until the next storm strikes.

It’s a similar pattern, it seems to me, to the bursting of the housing bubble  And what they called “The Great Recession” a few years ago which had much more widespread and long-lasting consequences and, again, an investigation that resulted in very few changes. If anyone was charged with a crime, I haven’t heard about it.  I read a piece the other day that noticed how the statute of limitations would soon expire and the same executives were still in place.  Their firms paid millions of dollars in fines but hardly any specific human being was held responsible. “Mistakes were made,” as they say.

If someone had set out deliberately to cause that same damage, deliberately sabotaged the grid, blown up key generators, and so on, I’m sure they would now be in jail or in hiding.  But it wasn’t deliberate, so it wasn’t a crime.  Clearly “mistakes were made.”  Clearly a number of people acted or failed to act to protect transmission lines and to enrich themselves at the expense of others but they didn’t use guns and we find it very hard to deal with this kind of fraud. It’s easier to steal and get away with it if you can do it smoothly from an executive office.  We find it hard to criminalize conduct that is all done with paper no matter how many people are hurt.

And here we get into theology.  When is a crime a crime? Two weeks ago we read in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “Let those who stole, steal no more.” OK, but what is stealing?  When is it OK to steal money and endanger lives and when is it not OK? If a young man from the inner city breaks into a home or store and walks away with a few dollars, that’s clearly a crime and the perpetrator will be sent to prison if caught.  But if a corporate board puts millions of dollars into their pockets by repackaging mortgages, thousands of lives can be drastically affected and far more damage done but somehow there is no crime and no need for punishment.

Now this, as I said, gets us into theology, and I meant that very seriously.  Today’s epistle talks about a struggle “not with flesh and blood” but against “the rulers, against the authorities,  against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The King James Version called it “spiritual wickedness in high places” and some people think that refers to Washington, but the new translations say “in heavenly places” and that clearly is not Washington. The larger subject is “spiritual wickedness” – and not just in high places but here, because the passage says “we wrestle with spiritual wickedness.” It’s here within and around us.  But Paul identifies it as “spiritual” and locates it in “heavenly places.”

Within us and yet beyond us. What exactly is it that we’re dealing with?  I’ve known people who sat on corporate boards and they’re no worse than the rest of us. Some struck me as better. But they are in position to make decisions with enormous consequences.  Suppose a manager at PG & E is told that there’s line work that needs to be done, but he or she also knows that postponing it for awhile will increase profits. Maybe no one will even know how you did it but you may even be commended for the money you saved. I mean, who plans for a colossal snow storm in October? So why would you do that if you can make more of a profit by putting it off.

What would you do?  You and I may not be on corporate boards, but we have our own decisions to make and if we have a leak under the sink, but we can use the money to go out to dinner and put off fixing the leak under the sink a few more days . . . what’s your priority?  It may be stupid, it may cost us more in the long run, but we don’t put lives in danger.  On the other hand, every one of us makes decisions every day with enormous consequences we never even consider.

I remember trying for months to persuade myself that I really need an iPad or smart phone or tablet.  It sometimes seems that everyone else has them and can whip them out at a moment’s notice to show me children’s pictures or the best route to San Jose or the latest news bulletin and all my cell phone is good for is phone calls. But do I really – I mean really – need something more? I argue it out in personal terms: a fancy cell phone versus medical bills or dinner out but beyond that is my need for an iPod greater than the need of an African child for food.  Do I need to buy another book for myself when there are children elsewhere who have no books?  If I put my decision-making in global terms, how can I justify my convenience in a world of overwhelming need?

It’s not just bad people who cause problems.  It’s our own short-sightedness and self-interest.  But why do I not think in those terms?  Why is my thinking, my decision making, so narrow, so self-centered? Or think about the anger and division in American politics or in the Episcopal Church. Is it true, as some would argue, that there are really people out to destroy the country or divide the church? No, it’s not true; I don’t think so. But there are good people so blinded by their fears or self-interest that they act in ways that can harm millions and somehow it always looks like the other guy who causes the problem.

I read an article a few years ago about the AIDS pandemic in Africa. I remember reading about a hospital in Lusaka where a child was dying every fifteen minutes, a cemetery in South Africa where people had to wait in line to carry out burials, farms uncultivated because so many have died, children dying of malnutrition because there’s no one to provide food. But the means are there to halt it.  Here and there action is being taken which could halt it if only everyone would work together, but not enough do. Governments and agencies lack the will to concentrate and coordinate resources. And the resources aren’t there because no one dares raise taxes even on the super-rich and pledges to churches and aid agencies are far below what we could do if we really cared.  I saw it referred to once as  “murder by complacency.”

The problem is not the evil that some do deliberately, but the failure of good people to go out of their way at all to do what needs to be done to make a difference. And I believe that’s a theological problem.  It is, first of all, the spiritual sickness that afflicts the human race, that weakens our will, saps our energy, enables us to avoid, ignore, overlook, the work that needs to be done for good to triumph. It wouldn’t take much to make a difference, but that little is somehow beyond our reach. And in this battle it seems to me the diagnosis we heard this morning is critical.  It’s not just “flesh and blood;” it’s “cosmic powers.”

Yes, there’s a lot of evil in each of us, but not enough to produce so much suffering. You and I don’t will bad things to happen.  Give us something direct and immediate to do to help someone else and we’ll do it. But I don’t believe we really understand the nature of the battle, the spiritual forces arrayed against us. Paul is saying there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Left to our own devices, we might be alright; but we aren’t left to our own devices. There’s a power beyond us at work and at work so smoothly and subtly, we seldom have any idea what’s going on.

Someone once said, “For evil to triumph it’s only necessary for good people to do nothing.”  Yes, but even if we do something but not enough – and that’s generally what happens – evil will still often triumph. All this begs the question of what evil is and where it comes from.  The epistle this morning locates it outside ourselves; it defines it as the ruling power of this world.  And there we really identify the theological problem.  Yes, there’s evil in all of us, but not enough to account for the evil around us.  The men and women on the boards of Wall Street firms aren’t evil enough themselves to cause so much suffering.  The people of Afghanistan aren’t evil enough to cause the chaos there.  The people of Israel and Palestine are not so uniquely evil that no one can hope to resolve their problems. The people of Africa aren’t evil enough to cause the millions of deaths, the suffering, that’s afflicting that continent.  No, we are not that evil, but we are weak enough to let ourselves be used by the evil beyond us – what Ephesians calls “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” – and let our good intentions be turned into paving stones on the wide road to hell.

People sometimes see the Bible as taking a negative view of human nature.  I think they miss the point. I think in fact that the Bible takes a very optimistic view of human nature and sees potential in us, possibilities, that we might not have imagined.  The Bible doesn’t condemn us as evil; the Bible on the contrary says God created a good world and put good people in it made “in the image of God.” And the problem is the serpent. Not just in Eden, but here: in Afghanistan and Africa and Texas and San Francisco and in good Christians like you and me.

There’s an epidemic of evil and we haven’t taken the shots we need to avoid the universal infection. Why not?  When an epidemic breaks out people get shots and wear face masks and avoid certain areas.  When winter is coming, we line up for flu shots.  But with the forces of chaos and evil that are always breaking in on us we go on with life as usual and let the epidemic rage.  As long as we aren’t challenged directly, we’re willing to let it rage and we never do see how it’s at work in us, that we are already dying of it. We find it hard to believe that evil is really that bad and really is beyond our ability to resist if we stand alone. But it is that bad and we are that weak when we stand alone. It’s not the Afghans or the Africans or the Taliban or Al Qaeda or the Irish or North Koreans who are the root of the problem, nor is it us.  It’s the power of evil that constantly invades this world from beyond, for the most part quietly, boring from within until it makes us part of the problem, complicit ourselves in all the horror that we could prevent with God’s help.

There’s an obvious question to ask at this point: I talk about “an evil power beyond us;” So you might ask: “Is that the devil?  Do you believe in the devil?” seventh seal That’s a big question, and having brought it up, I don’t really have time to deal with it this morning, not adequately anyway. But I will say this: if there is a devil – and it certainly seems that way – he, or she, would be smart enough to keep out of sight. When Paul says in this morning’s reading: “take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” that’s figurative language. There is no material shield of faith and there are no flaming arrows coming at us, and maybe there is no evil one – but don’t count on it.  What we know for sure is that faith itself is real and we surely need it to protect ourselves. If there were real flaming arrows it would be easier to avoid them and if there were a real devil in a red suit we could spot him and stay away. But a real devil would be smart enough to hide.  So we need to be smart enough to deepen our faith and hold it fast for protection.

We’ve been reading this wonderful letter to the Ephesians for six weeks now and looking at different aspects of it.  It begins quietly enough with an appeal to brotherhood and peace and unity but here toward the end it zeroes in on basics and reminds us that we’re in desperate need of help to achieve the goal. The enemy is stronger than we are and we’re doomed to defeat unless we recognize our need and act on it, unless we fight spiritual evil with spiritual good, the help that’s available here, right here, at this altar, today.  “Take the shield of faith,”St. Paul writes, and “the helmet of salvation,” and “the sword of the Spirit,” praying always and keeping alert.”  We have the means available in prayer and sacrament, the Bible and our faith.  God is already at work within us.  How much more could God do if we opened ourselves more fully to the grace available?  In the battle against evil, are we willing to offer ourselves more fully – our whole selves, our whole lives in God’s service and finally let God win the battle through us?

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