Sermon
July 18, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' 28 He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29 But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.' "

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." 37 He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen! (NRSV)

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Sermon

This hot weather is not good for much. You can’t mow the lawn, which is brown and dying anyway. You can’t paint the house or weed the garden. The only thing this hot weather is good for is a sermon about hell and I’m going to give it to you today!

This sermon began with a trip to the temple for a meeting with Rabbi Koch. On the way in I noticed a board with quite a few 3x5 cards tacked to it. I ask him what they were, and he explained that children in the temple could write questions on those cards and post them there, and he would try and answer them. I thought this was a good idea and approached some Church School teachers and asked them to solicit some questions from the children, so I, too, could answer them.

But what do you think happened. Did they pitch a nice easy question to me, one I could actually answer. No! They fired in a knuckleball slider - listen to this, the first one submitted: Did the devil just find his way underground or did God put him there?

As if I knew! Ask John Milton, don’t ask me.

But the question expresses a current fascination with Satan - a fascination expressed in books, music, movies, and on the Internet. Last week I typed Satan into my web browser and came up with a thousand plus hits.

Here’s one, Santa = Satan; the top ten reasons why Santa is actually Satan.

I guess this is a put on, although you can’t be sure. When we were living in Vermont our neighbor asked our daughter Kathryn if she knew that by dressing up in a costume and going out trick or treating, she was celebrating Satan’s birthday. She was only four years old, and the neighbor boy who asked the question was only five. But he was dead serious. He’d learned it in church.

The best Devil I’ve seen lately is Al Pacino. Have any of you seen the movie where he plays Satan - who in this case is a New York lawyer who indeed goes under ground - his favorite activity is riding the subways.

Speaking of Al Pacino, I’m reminded that in the traditional Roman Catholic baptism service, the participants are asked if they renounce the Devil and all his works. I never knew this until I saw the movie The Godfather, where, you might recall, the baptism scene is cut with all the different ways Al Pacino/Michael Corleone gets rid of his enemies.

You’ll notice in our baptism service we don’t ask "Do you renounce Satan and all his works?". We question if we promise

To resist the temptation of evil -

in what we do, in what we say, in what we choose to ignore.

The difference between those two ways of asking the question points to a different world view - world views that share much in common but which also depart ways at some point and follow different paths to different consequences.

Both views agree there is evil, there is temptation, there are moral decisions to be made. The question is what do we identify as the source of this, where do we put up our guard, what are the practical consequences of our mind set.

What is there about evil that has inspired visions of the devil:

it is overwhelming - unexplainable in its fury

it strikes without regard for goodness

it is tempting

it is contagious

it has history

it has momentum

it persists

It seems constantly poised to overthrow good, and if God is good, then it must rise to a power near to God - a power and personality called Satan, Lucifer, The Prince of Darkness, the Devil.

The scholar Elaine Pagels of Princeton University has written a book The Origins of Satan. Acknowledging that the idea of an evil power has been around a long time and exists in many cultures, in this book Pagels focuses on the Gospels of the New Testament, and the role Satan plays in the story they tell. One important fact she highlights is that the Gospels were written after a disastrous war between the Jews and the Romans, a war that meant terrible death and destruction for the Jewish people.

And so one of the central questions on everyone’s mind at the time the Gospels were written was: How could God allow this? And the answer was that these human events have to be understood in the context of a cosmic supernatural war between good and evil. There are those who are enlisted among the forces of good and those enlisted among the forces of evil.

Now you might have thought that the early Christians might have identified the Romans as warriors for the powers of evil, for Satan and his legions, for it was the Romans who nailed Jesus to the cross. But the fact is that at the time when the Gospels were written, after a terrible war where Rome proved its might, at a time when Rome ensured the peace and commerce which allowed the faith to spread, and at a time when the Jews were expelling Christians from the synagogues - at that time it was their own Jewish brothers and sisters that the Gospel writers identified as pawns of the devil, and that identification proved to be the greatest sin of the church down through the centuries. It was a sin whose culmination would come in our own age, in the age of Hitler and the Holocaust.

And that shows the down side of seeing evil incarnate in the devil.

The downside is the open door to justify ourselves and demonize others.

In the history of religious thought, just like in the history of scientific thought, ideas come forward that offer answers to questions; those answers work until they create more problems than they solve. It seems to me that in practical terms seeing evil incarnate in Satan has come to that point - we can see it has created more problems than it has solved.

The insight I see expressed in the parable Jesus told was that good and evil are intertwined in humanity at the roots, and that it should not be expected that we can untangle the mess in this present age.

And the image of evil like weeds is apt. The struggle against evil is kind of like weeding my garden - it’s a constant effort. Maybe I’m tempted to create some sort of herbicide and rid myself of these pesky invaders, but the odds are that eventually I’m going to poison the peonies, pollute the river, and perhaps make myself sick in the process. Better to just keep working and put up with a little trouble.

Keeping evil under control does not come about from a single bold stroke. It comes about through a dozen daily choices, choices about how to react, about what to count as important, about in what we do, what we say, what we choose to ignore.

Although this is kind of primitive and childish, I prefer to see the Devil the way he was presented in those old Looney Toones cartoons. You know, Daffy Duck is presented with a moral dilemma. On the one shoulder pops up an angel, on the other a devil. They try and pull Daffy towards the good or bad decision. But both the angel and the devil have Daffy’s face. They are not strangers to him, but projections of his own internal freedom to choose - to choose for right, or to choose for wrong.

This, I must admit, is how I experience temptation. I have an intimate knowledge of the tempter. I meet him every day. I meet him every time I pass a poor person on the street and feel an attitude of arrogance shadow my mind. I meet him every time I drive my car, every time I have an argument, every time I remember past hurts and offenses, every time I wonder if I should say I’m sorry.

There is the mythical devil and the real devil

There is the mythical hell and the real hell

I believe the real devil and the real hell are with us everyday. The battlefront is not in some distant time and place, but in the here and now, in the heart, mind, soul, and strength of each of us.

God did not put the devil underground, but God did put free moral choice into the heart of humanity. That free will and necessity of choice has bedeviled humanity since the dawn of time, but that is a gift, not a curse - that is the will of God, not the invention of the devil.

God has seen us struggle - God has seen us make great and terrible choices. God has seen us fall and has reached out to lift us up. That is the Good News - that is what God did in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Not that God takes away our freedom, but that in the freedom of love God offers us strength, help, guidance, and a new day with new beginnings.

Some day this struggle will be behind us. Until that day dawns, may we each allow God to strengthen us to fight the good fight, to keep the faith, to win the crown of life. Amen

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