Do Not be Overcome by Evil, But Overcome Evil with Good: A Post September 11 Sermon
February 09, 2003
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:27-36)
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord" [Deuteronomy 32:35]. On the contrary: "If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads" [Proverbs 25:21, 22]. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
Reading from Swedenborg
Who can feel how cruel revenge is except those who are involved in the good of loving their neighbor? (Divine Providence #318.7)
When we human beings find ourselves in dangerous situations, we become afraid. That's built into our physiology and psychology. When we're in danger, we become afraid. And that fear tends to manifest into a whole spectrum of emotions, from anger to depression.
Once the immediate danger is over, it is important for us to pay attention to what feelings have arisen inside of us. Anger and depression are coping mechanisms in responding to a crisis to try to stabilize ourselves, and to defend and protect ourselves for the time being. But it is believed that both anger and depression are "secondary emotions." This means there are other primary emotions within them, such as fear. It is important, if we are not to become prisoners to those emotions of anger and depression, that we be able to name what is coming up for us; to give words to those emotions. Rage, hopelessness--what else? Terror, sadness--what else are you feeling today?
Congregation answered: "Numbness; powerless; helpless; confusion; determination; despair; distress; dread; resolve."
Once we are in touch with what those feelings are, the next step is to remember that love is stronger than any of them. Those feelings come from a very primitive place inside of us--a very, very human and primal place. They are young and vulnerable parts of us. And it is important that we take all of those feelings and, just as if they were a child and we were holding them in our arms, we let ourselves express those feelings--but within the comfort of a love that is far greater than any of them.
Another way to come to terms with what is happening and how it is affecting us is to breathe in all those states of mind that we just mentioned, and to let them flow through us. This is a Buddhist exercise: to breathe in those fearful, angry, hopeless, depressed states, and breathe out peace. This helps us know that love is the greater reality.
Another way is to picture in this little sanctuary all of those heavy emotions that we mentioned, and at the same time imagine this little church being cradled in the arms of God. Can you picture that? Nothing can separate us from the love of God, as the Apostle Paul said:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, nor the present nor the future, nor any powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37-39)
There is an extraordinary danger facing us not only as a nation through actual physical attacks and fears of future attacks, but there is also a danger in how we respond to this evil. While the depression and the anger and all the feelings in between are natural and healthy responses to what has occurred, there is a danger in staying stuck in any of them. That's why it is important to let them flow through.
If we stay stuck in these feelings and let them control us, then we are in danger of being overcome by evil. Evil can kill us. It is real and it is dangerous, not only to the body, but to the spirit. The way it kills the spirit is through depression, through hopelessness, through despair, through thinking there is no hope, or through anger. The danger in operating out of anger is that we may become the very evil and hatred that we condemn--and then we multiply it. Instead of stamping it out, we increase it, and we increase its power.
These are the two greatest dangers not only this week, but every day in the smallest of ways. Right now we are facing it in the biggest of ways. It's hard because there is actually truth in both of those places of being. It is true that there is evil in the world. There's a lot of evil. And it is true that we need to find a way to be safe as a country and as a human race. Do you see the dilemma? And do you see the danger of falling on either side, into hopelessness and despair or into hatred and evil? What's the way out?
Our church believes that we as a human race are evolving; that humanity is evolving. And one of the primary ways we evolve as individuals and as a people is through recognizing evil for what it is, and through finding an effective and loving response to it. In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells us the first step in how to do this: "Love your enemies."
"Love your enemies." Now how the heck do you love your enemy? First let's talk about what it doesn't mean. Loving your enemy does not mean that you love the evil that was done. Loving your enemy does not mean loving evil; it does not mean condoning evil; it does not mean doing nothing and letting it happen again. Loving your enemy means remembering that we are all part of one humanity.
From a Swedenborgian perspective, evil is very, very real, and yet it is not a primary source. Evil is a perversion of good. All life, all love, the essence of everything, is good. And we human beings are able to mess up that goodness; we are able to turn things upside down and make things very bad and very evil. We human beings are given freedom to turn good into bad.
Now, lots of people ask why didn't God stop this from happening? Wouldn't a loving God stop this from happening? Think it all the way through. If God stopped our evil actions, what would we be? The purpose of life is to learn how to love. The only way to learn how to love is to have choices: some good choices and some bad choices. And folks, those choices are real, and God doesn't stop us from doing really bad things. God loves us enough to not stop us--to not take away our humanity.
So the challenge before us is to respond to this extraordinary crisis by taking an evolutionary step forward in our development as humans: by not letting our spirits be killed by this attack; by not letting ourselves become consumed by the anger and hatred which was projected at us; and by finding a way, an action, that is motivated by love.
I'll tell you one way I do it. I don't know the people who did these terrible things. But I know that they were once little babies, innocent little babies--and I am able to love every little baby. This is one way I can summon that love. And I know that God doesn't give up on any of us. No matter how bad an act we commit, God never gives up on any of us. Inside of everyone there is always at least a spark of goodness; and we can love that goodness in somebody even when we can't see it. We can believe and trust that it is there. And that's what "love your enemies" means. It means love the good that is within them, even if that is a goodness you cannot see.
There is another thing we can and must do. We need to feel our suffering and not be overcome by it. We need to let in the enormity of what has happened, and we need to find the resolve inside ourselves that we will spend the rest of our lives seeking a way to create peace.
There is one more thing we must do--and perhaps it is the hardest one to say right now. In order to stamp out evil, we must see it inside ourselves, as individuals and as a nation. We must recognize the ways we contribute to evil. You know the saying: we need to see the plank in our own eye as well as the splinter in the other's eye (Matthew 7:3-5). There is no justification for what occurred; absolutely none. That's not what I'm talking about. But for healing to happen, for peace to happen between any groups of people, we need to each recognize our part, whether big or small. Do you know what I mean by that? This is the trickiest one of all.
Congregation answered: "You mean beginning to understand our enemy?"
Yes, beginning to understand our enemy. It doesn't make them right in any way; but peace can't happen without beginning to understand how the things we say or do, or how we act or don't act, contributes to pain and suffering in this world. And then we must find a way to begin to turn that around.
I can't end on that note. I'm going to end on this note. How many of you have cried tears this week for someone whom you've never met? How many of you are acting a little more warmly and kindly to strangers? How many of you are driving more considerately? How many of you are finding yourselves saying "I love you" to people you have never said "I love you" to before? These are all signs of our hearts growing. And our hearts need to continue to grow. We need to keep letting that happen. So as well as loving those people who we have a really hard time loving, let's increase our loving of those it's not so tough to love, too.
Dear God, help us not to be consumed by hatred and revenge, but help us to act wisely in the face of this crisis. And help us not to fall into hopelessness, but help us to be buoyed up by the spirit of your love. Lord, through your love and your wisdom all things are possible. Help our love for one another to grow and deepen all the days of our lives. Amen.
Rev. Rachel Rivers