3rd Sunday of Lent Sermon

March 12, 2023
Preacher: The Rev. Gail Wheatley

When Eric+ wrote some time back and asked if I was available for this Sunday, I was happy to say yes, after such good Sundays last fall.  I’m quite glad to be with you again.  Then he said there was a “catch.”  It wouldn’t be straight lectionary/seasonal preaching as there was going to be a Lenten sermon series on this particular confession from Enriching Our Worship.  Okay…. Each Sunday would have a different portion of the confession and mine would be “we repent of the evil that enslaves us.”  Did I still want to come?


Well.  Bleep.  That means my sermon folder full of great ideas on these lessons today would likely be of no help and I definitely couldn’t “dust off” an old sermon.  Dang, that takes some of the fun out of it!  And I confess I don’t like this confession, precisely because of the repeated use of the word “evil” because I’ve never made my peace with that word in a Christian context and so just avoided using this particular confession if I could.  And I could so I did!


Have you noticed that when there is something you really would like to avoid, that God keeps putting it in front of you until you pay attention?  So I said yes, I’ll take this Sunday and what it has in store for me.  And thus for you!  The readings this week are of no direct help in this regard, but they have such important images of water and the ways God has used water with the people of God throughout history.  We’ll get back to that.


In the meantime, I had to figure out how to reckon with “evil.”  It sent me back to the first book of theology/spirituality I ever bought:  Amazing Grace by Kathleen Norris.  I was newly back to the church after nearly 25 years absent and was wandering Barnes & Noble in my hometown.  On one of the center aisle tables, where they lay the piles of books down flat, there this one was.  I picked it up, leafed through it, put it down, walked away.  Ten minutes later I had it in my hands again, looked again, put it down, tried to go off and find a murder mystery or something.  And there it was back in my hands again, so I gave in:  Fine, God, fine.  I’ll buy it.  The subtitle is: A Vocabulary of Faith and it is Norris’ own wrestling with what she calls scary words that had been stumbling blocks to her return to faith; words which she says felt daunting and vaguely threatening.  Words which were also scary to me, like salvation, worship, judgment, apocalypse.  I still have the receipt in the book:  April 18, 1999.  5:16 p.m.  J  I have recommended this book to countless people and I commend it to you as well.  In fact, read everything she writes.


And sure enough, there it was for me now:  Good and Evil.  Her discussion in that particular chapter was around the good and evil which reside within us all, our capacity for anger and violence, even when we are able to keep it in check, and the continuum we are all on, from Jesus to Jeffrey Dahmer and the Holocaust.


It wasn’t the discussion on evil I was looking for precisely, but it got me started.  Popular cultural language uses “evil” pretty freely, as in my evil science teacher, or an article on Facebook recently about the evil nanny the family had hired.  I don’t think that’s what the confession is getting at but it seems to me there is a distinction between evil and sin, another of my scary words.  Sin might be defined as those actions which turn us away from God or are counter to the purposes of God and creation.  We’ve got the Ten Commandments to help us with those and they seem to be things of the individual.  “You” shall not steal, kill, dishonor…. They are personal and they are personal actions and choices we make by thought, word or deed.


Might evil then be more systemic, an outside “force,” if you will?  When we say there is evil in the world, what do we mean by that?  If you Google it, you could regret it, but I found an interesting distinction between “moral” evil, like slavery or oppression or mass murder; evil as a profound wickedness against the common good and with intent to harm without remorse. And “natural” evil which is commonly used to describe hurricanes, earthquakes, illness and death.  It’s interesting to me that I never would have called those things evil, but some do, as evils outside our control, but which ultimately stemmed from “The Fall.”  We’re not going there today!


So where are we going with this, you might be asking and I have been asking myself!  What does the statement, “We repent of the evil which enslaves us” then mean?  I’m not certain there is a clear distinction between that and the next two phrases, the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf.  But I’ll leave that to Eric+ to sort out over the next two Sundays!


To repent is, of course, a primary theme of Lent.  We express our willingness to accept our mortality, our selfish desires which separate us from God and each other, our appetites for treasures which rust and fade away; the temptations we do not resist.  To repent is to literally turn around, turn back toward God, restore our relationship with the one who created us and loves us without exception.  And to work toward being the people God has created us to be.


You may have your own ideas on what those evils are which enslave us, as a culture, society, nation, community.  Greed.  The desire for power.  The Bible tells us the love of money is the root of all evil. The blatant disregard for the humanity of all people so that we might acquire more goods which don’t last. Our willingness to be blind to oppression of those we deem “less” than ourselves so that we might buy things more cheaply or obsessively.  Part of us rebels against these generalizations, comforting ourselves that we personally don’t deny loans to people of color in poor neighborhoods by the railroad yard…. [That may be evil done on our behalf!]  But when we benefit on the backs of others, seen or unseen, we are culpable.  Even when it is other people in power who make those decisions, we remain part of the problem, part of the dehumanizing systems.  Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral [or silent] in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  That pretty much busts all of us.


Evils which enslave us by coercing us to buy more, acquire more, rent more storage units for stuff we do not need, sometimes called “affluenza.” The addictions we have fill our empty places or bury our trauma.  The “isms” we perpetuate; racism, sexism, age-ism, anti-Semitism.  Our wanton disregard for the precious resources of this fragile earth entrusted to us.  The fears and phobias which enslave us: the false and perhaps evil told to us that we are never enough, that we are unloveable, that God has turned from us because of our sin, that we are going to hell because of xyz shortcoming or political affiliation. Our willingness to be sucked into conspiracy theories and science denial to build ourselves up and mock those who disagree.


Well, we could go on and on but that’s not really the point.  In confession, we express a willingness to repent, to turn away from evil and our own sin, to face the God who will always forgive and bless and love and bring forth a new day.  It is of no benefit to our spiritual life to say we’re sorry and get right back with the same old things.  We do that, of course; repent with sincere contrition and find that we’ve picked up those thoughts or actions once again.  How good it is that we confess every week!  The gift of confession, Eric+ noted on Lent 1, is that we begin the process of restoration, which we will do again this morning.


On the table in the narthex you’ll find a poem by Rabinragath Tagore, Bengali poet and polymath, which I came across a couple weeks ago as the opening meditation for a session of contemplative prayer.  It speaks directly to our penchant for excesses until we are surrounded by wreckage and our hearts give out:


Time after time
I came to your gate with raised hands,
asking for more and yet more.
You gave and gave, now in slow measure, now
in sudden excess.

I took some and some things I let drop;

some lay heavy on my hands;
some I made into playthings and broke them when tired;
till the wrecks and hoards of your gifts grew
immense, hiding you, and the ceaseless

expectation wore my heart out.

Take, oh take—has now become my cry.
Shatter all this beggar’s bowl:
put out the lamp of the importunate Watcher.
Hold my hands, raise me from the
still-gathering heap of your gifts
into the bare infinity of your uncrowded


I have a suggestion for this week, or maybe for the rest of Lent, for what we might “do” as penitent people, and that brings me, at last, back to the water in the readings for today.  Water from the rock struck by Moses to satisfy thirsty people.  Water at the well for the Samaritan woman.  A spring of water gushing up to eternal life.  Living water from and of Jesus.  Sir, we say, give us this water that we might never be thirsty again.  So we take our buckets to the well of life for the water which will satisfy our restless spirits, the emptiness in ourselves, the places which only God can fill.


But our buckets are filled by the evils which enslave us; personal and corporate and systemic sins.  To make way for repentance and reconciliation with God and each other, we look inside ourselves as a worthy Lenten task, and name the things which enslave us as a way to decrease their power in us. They can be spoken aloud to a confessor or you can write what you identify on a little slip of paper and put it in one of these cups.


When you become aware of evil, however you will define that, and how it has power over you, write it down and put it in.  Maybe you’ll have 20 slips in there.  Maybe you’ll have two.  Whatever it is, it is taking space away from the living water Jesus can pour into your cup.  Bring them back on Good Friday and dump them out at the foot of the cross or burn them in your fireplace or bury them in the garden.  Give them to God and let them go. Let yourself hear the words of absolution.  Your sins are forgiven.  Pray to become a better version of yourself. [Eric+] Then fill your cup with water, drink deeply from that holy well, and give thanks.


Gail Wheatley+