My sermon series at Old South this summer is focusing on evil. Where does it come from? How does it interact with our faith? What does it mean to say that God is good? Why do bad things happen to good people (and why do good things happen to bad people)? Is the “evil one” a “one,” an entity,” like we think of God, only the opposite? What, if anything, should we, can we, do about evil?
Evil is one of those topics that I believe is woefully lacking in mainline/progressive church and faith dialogue. In the wake of this lack of engagement, we get some profoundly problematic views on what evil is and how it operates in our lives and in our world. For lots of good, faithful church-goers, evil has become something that is a force that is completely separate from themselves. It is something that sometimes acts upon good church people (especially when something bad happens in a personal way to them or to someone close to them), but is not really a part of good church people. Evil is “out there,” and there are “evildoers,” but they too are wholly separate, different people, as if a completely different breed of humanity.
Not talking about evil and bad things has also created a repertoire of horrible responses to those times when bad things do happen—“God only gives you what you can handle,” “God needs [your child, your loved one] in heaven,” “Everything happens for a reason.”
Not talking about evil and bad things has also helped to empty our pews. Younger people hear those empty responses and, as well, feel that their deep questions, including questions about good and evil, are not welcome in most church environments. And, so they have left.
I probably would have left too, except that I was fortunate in my journey to find communities of faith and faith leaders who allowed deep questions to be spoken and who identified those horrible responses to terrible things as the horrible responses they were.
At Old South, our series is up to week 4. The first two weeks focused on Genesis 2 and 3, especially that serpent, the “craftiest wild animal that the LORD God had made.” Last week, because it was a communion Sunday, we considered lessons that might be gleaned from the communion table. Tomorrow, we’ll compare two passages that speak of “evil” in some way, one from the Old Testament (Isaiah 58) and one from the New Testament (the temptation of Jesus from Matthew).
While the series has not exactly raised the attendance numbers, which are low in the summer, I am finding that those who are coming to worship are really paying attention to my sermons and asking questions or responding with comments during coffee hour—and doing so in ways that are not typical. If my small sample community is any indication, there is a hunger and a desire to engage with difficult topics. There is interest and capacity to consider topics that are not tidy and neat, topics that raise more questions than answers.
It may be too late to make the kinds of changes that will turn the tide of church attendance, especially in a place like Maine where so few have any interest at all in going to any kind of church, but that doesn’t mean that we should not engage in these profound topics, such as evil. Even if all we do is alter the perspective of those few who still go to church, that will be enough.
And, for the clergy too, we need to tackle, in a public way, the problematic influence that the lazy mainline church has had on the larger culture (it’s not just church-goers who say problematic things when bad things happen). Who knows how our small numbers might influence those around them, sending out wave after wave of a deeper engagement with the “problem of evil” and how evil is not simply “out there,” but much closer to who we are and how we live?