January 26, 2020
How Long? Renouncing Evil
Rev. Carla Wilks at Mount Seymour United Church
The psalms are a form of writing in the Hebrew scriptures that was sung. It was like their hymn book. The thing that is great about the psalms is that every human emotion possible is represented there, from fears to ecstasies, from despair to joy. So at times when you don’t have words to pray for yourself, pick up the psalms and pray those words, as folks have done for thousands of years, way back 6 centuries before the time of Jesus. Even in Jesus time this was the hymnal of God’s people, so for us it remains that as well. The psalms have been the inspiration for many popular songs by Boney M, Leonard Cohen, U2, Bob Dylan and others.
This is the way that God’s people sang the blues, especially when things were not going well, when they had been praying for God to help them, and nothing happened. And they got frustrated. And they were close to giving up, and then they vocalized their pain in music. Bono from U2 says “That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me… the Blues. …Shouting at God: My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me? The psalms may be a font of gospel music, he says, but for me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals and the nature of his special relationship with God. Honesty, even to the point of anger.”
Think about a time when singing the blues would have been appropriate in your life. Loss of a job, loss of a loved one, maybe a change that wasn’t welcome. What about a time when we as a community sang the blues together, or needed to.
The church offers one of the few places where we may lament, where we may express our disappointments to God in the presence of loving community. These days people try to lament online, but it usually turns ugly. Internet trolls find them and take over. To lament authentically, to experience a community that can grieve together and shed a sympathetic tear, that’s one of the beautiful things about a community. The Psalms, like the one we just heard, are mostly laments, expressions of oppressed and distressed people.
How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily?
By the 4th century, the church had instituted a powerful symbol of the transformation of candidates for baptism. They turned away from evil and toward good. Before going into the water, they would face the direction of the West (the direction of the setting sun, the dying of the light) and renounce evil. Then they would turn away from that direction to face the East (the direction of the rising sun) as a sign that they were leaving the forces of evil behind and facing the Light of God in their lives. The language of renouncing evil has come to us through the ages as our rites of baptism invite us to renounce evil in all its forms, or as we often say it here “to seek justice and resist evil” or “seek to resist oppression and harmful behavior, and to live in love and justice” The evil that we speak of renouncing is the evils that rise up within us and the systemic oppression, like racism, homophobia, sexism, violence, which are inherent in our societies.
We affirm that we have the freedom to renounce evil because it is God in whom we put our trust. Why? Because God is good! But we are not God. We are human, and we lose the feeling of thank you, of gratitude, of our own blessedness. We forget to face the light of the rising sun (son).
I was thinking this week about how we renounce evil in our lives. I don’t often think or talk about things as evil, but I think of evil at its basic understanding as the absence of good – something that brings harm. Things that prevent people from living fully into the goodness that God intends for every child of God.
Then how do we renounce evil? We can stand up for what is right in many ways.
There are moments in history when millions of people stand up together and take to the streets to protest, and I think about the most recent one, when Greta Thunberg began a movement that resulted in millions protesting in support of protecting our earth…We can write letters and sign petitions in solidarity. We can volunteer for organizations that work for justice. In our daily lives we can stand up to people who are acting in ways that are harmful to others.
Or we can participate in the ministry right here in our building – our Thrift Shop. Many of you remember Paul Butler from Hollyburn Family services and the North Shore Youth Safe House. When he was here before Christmas, he told us that the District of North Vancouver gave him a house to use as a transition house for young adults who were previously in care. They would live there for a subsidized rent, and receive some support from Hollyburn Family Services. After being in conversation with him before Christmas and after about ways that Mount Seymour could help, this past week, he and the youth living in the house came by and were able to find many things to set up their house to live in. We managed to get them set up with art for their walls, most of the things that they needed for their kitchen, bedding and bathroom accessories. It was a beautiful afternoon. The Thrift Shop volunteers who were still here working that afternoon were so glad that they were. They witnessed such a special time. These youth, who come from home situations that were such that they had to leave or be removed from their homes, were overwhelmed. Paul said that they were so overwhelmed because they were not used to receiving gifts. This small act on our part through our thrift shop, has made these youth feel valued and supported and loved, and perhaps is a small way of renouncing the evil of the situations that they came from. If we can put more love into the world, that will help to counter the evil and hopefully overtake it.
I started reading a book a few weeks ago that I received as a gift for my ordination. It has daily readings, and this topic of renouncing evil made me think of one of the recent entries that I read. It talks about protests and how we seem to be protesting the same things over and over again, climate change, institutional racism, LGBT+ rights, gender equality, anti-capitalism. It talked about how many of these things, there seems to be no end to the protests, and is it really getting anywhere? It mentioned a protest sign that I remember seeing at the Climate March, that says “I can’t believe I still have to protest this stuff” (except it was a different S-word in place of “Stuff”). The book goes on to say that mass protest movements perhaps don’t cause shifts in policy, but that is not the only measure of its value. Gandhi says “we may never know what will result of these actions… but if you do nothing, there will be no results.”
Some of the value in standing up against evils in big ways like marches and protests, is that it changes people. It changes the individuals who participate, and they make small changes in their own lives which in turn can make a big difference.
And also value in such protests comes in bearing witness to the lives of the oppressed, the ostracized, powerless and the ignored, and once the march is over, continuing to stand alongside those people. Elie Wiesel, author of the book called Night, lost his sister and his parents in the Holocaust. He spent much of the rest of his life with Holocaust survivors. He came to see his role as that of a witness, to guard against history repeating itself.
Several years ago the United Church had a report at our national United Church meeting called General Council. The report was called “To Seek Justice and Resist Evil: Towards a Global Economy for All God’s People”
It stated that in 1989 the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Since then, poverty among children and their families has risen markedly. According to the National Council of Welfare, there was a 58.6 percent increase in the number of children living in poverty between the year the House of Commons voted to eliminate child poverty and the year that they promised to eliminate it by. So instead of eliminating child poverty in those 10 years, it increased by 58.6 percent…that was an additional 547,000 more children living in poverty. And that’s in Canada.
The report asks some questions to help us to think about what a just economic system would look like.
an we envisage a different kind of economy where there will be no need for weekly line-ups to get a bag of groceries at a local church basement? Does not our gospel call for a different kind of economy? What changes do we need to make in our own ways of thinking and acting to build such an economy? An economy not based on the pillage of natural resources? An economy that affirms the rights of indigenous and other marginalized peoples to life and to community?
The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says a psalm may do one of three things to a reader. Sometimes a psalm will orient you, remind you where you’re going. Sometimes it will disorient you – turn you upside down. Sometimes it will utterly re-orient you. That’s when it gives us another way of seeing, or suggests another road to take.
Just as in the psalms, we can praise God, who is good even and especially in the midst of pain–even and especially when the world is not good. It is the ultimate trust in God who works through us to transform injustice, to love as we are loved. It is possible to cry “how long” and also claim our agency to do something in that waiting–to “resist evil” and in that resisting, expose evil to the light, to a more just, more loving way.
I close with a quote from the American philosopher, Dr Cornell West, who sums up for me the concept of how we approach renouncing evil. He says “To be human you must bear witness to justice. Justice is what love looks like in public – to be human is to love and be loved.” –
Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!