Fear No Evil
September 12, 2021 Romans 12:17-21; Psalm 23
In Yaa Gyasi’s breathtaking novel, Homegoing, an aged mother takes the wounded hands of her adult son and says, “What I know now, my son: Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home. I'm sorry you have suffered. I'm sorry for the way your suffering casts a shadow over your life, over the woman you have yet to marry, the children you have yet to have” (p. 242). The elderly mother who speaks these words is known in her Ghanaian village as the “Crazy Woman.” What the reader soon learns is that those who do not heed her words about evil are the crazy ones.
“Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’. To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-21).
Over the course of my ministry, I have heard and pronounced many benedictions that begin with Paul’s words, “Repay no one evil for evil.” After living through the past tortuous months, I realize that I have spoken Paul’s admonition far too easily. The Apostle lifts his hands to the heavens and says, “Overcome evil with good,” but even if we can ever overcome evil, we cannot do so simply by putting a “good” mind to it. Evil is far more powerful, more systemic, than that. The “Crazy Woman” reminds her son that evil is like a powerful virus, sometimes a family virus, for which there is often not a simple vaccine. Evil casts its shadow over your life. It casts its shadow over your soul. It wounds you. It wounds those you love. It wounds everyone in its path.
Evil has certainly cast a long shadow over my life since the first of June. No one person in my horrible situation was evil. Evil refuses to be reduced to something that simple. No, in my case, evil cast a long dark shadow from a malicious and wrongful social media accusation against me to a host of hurtful decisions made under the guise of “just following church law.”
Over the past months, evil has cast a long dark shadow not just over me, but over my family, my friends, and this beloved community of Cove. During the course of this senseless nightmare, there were times when I wore the wounds of evil with some sort of sick pride, “Look at me. I have been wrongfully accused of a horrendous act. I am chief among all victims.” What Gyasi helped me see in her novel, even more than Paul does in his letter to the Roman church, is that evil not only casts a shadow on our present and future, it makes us myopic, blinding us to all the others around us who are also living in the shadow of evil.
At one particularly dark moment in my ordeal, I went walking and started reciting a psalm that I memorized as a child, the 23rd Psalm. I recited it not out of a sudden burst of spiritual energy, but as a life vest of redemptive words that helped keep me afloat in a roaring storm. I kept repeating this psalm and I invite you to say these beloved words with me now as I learned them, from the King James Version of the Bible. If these words are not in your memory bank, just let them wash over you with grace as they washed over me:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou
preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head
with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of
my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
As I walked, I focused on different phrases of the psalm, but on that particular day, I focused mostly on the words, “I will fear no evil.” I said those words, shouted them, sang them, but, for the life of me, I could not make myself believe them. I was too scared. In the flash of an eye beginning with an absolutely false Instagram post, evil went from something that happens to others to something that had cast its awful shadow over me. I had felt its harsh blow before but never had I felt evil pierce me like an arrow targeted at my heart and soul.
The longer I walked, the more I forgot Paul’s words. I wanted vengeance. I wanted someone to pay for the trauma I saw in Jennell’s and Erin’s and Josh’s eyes as this apocalypse unfolded. I wanted someone to pay for the helplessness I heard in friends’ voices who could not find the words to comfort me, comfort us, because there were no such words. I wanted someone to pay for causing pain in this community I love as you watched your pastor be falsely accused and immediately put on leave, and for causing total disruption for Greg as well as for Jane who did not need her life turned upside down just because mine had been. As hard as I prayed, there was no softening of my hardened heart. Try as I might, I could not escape the dark shadow of evil.
I have been a Presbyterian pastor for more than four decades. I wish I could have achieved the spiritual height of being able to say with confidence, “I will fear no evil,” but I cannot. This summer, I met my match. I now know, deep in my bones that evil is a formidable foe. I cannot wish it away and I cannot pretend that its grip is not really all that strong.
It was several weeks later on another walk, that another phrase in the 23rd Psalm helped me begin the long, arduous journey out of shadow of evil. The phrase goes: “God restores my soul.” It is a lovely phrase. I said it again and again, all the while asking, “Just how does God pull that off?”
About two months into this nightmare, I was hitting golf balls with my friend, John. At that low point, I had to hit something and John was wise enough to invite me to do that by playing golf. During our “good walk spoiled” as Twain called golf, John asked me: “When all of this is over, are you going to be able to return to work?” It was a fair question, but of all the questions that I had been asking God, myself, the church, the world, I was surprised when I realized that this was not one of them, because God was already in the process of revealing the answer to me.
I learned that God restores souls that are being assaulted in the forest of evil through the love of friends and faithful church communities. From the moment in early June when I had to share with Session and then you that I had been accused of horrendous wrongdoings, my friends and this beloved community stood by me, Jennell, Erin, and Josh, loving me, loving us, when I felt only fear and anger, and my family felt only terror. You prayed for me, for us, when our souls were too brittle to do so. You believed with all your hearts that “God restores my soul,” when the best I could do was to hope that the Psalmist might be right.
It was not until I heard the investigation was over and this nightmare had ended that the path out of the forest of evil turned my eyes to the first words of the psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Those words were true when evil had a stranglehold on me and I could not feel the truth of those words, because, thankfully, the Christian faith is finally not about our “feeling it.” It is about our holding on to the Psalmist’s assurance and to Paul’s soaring solo to the church in Rome when he sings: “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, no evil, no suffering, no pain, no grief, that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8, author’s paraphrase).
Yaa Gyasi knows that you and I would be crazy to dismiss or underestimate the power of evil in the world, in our lives. The Psalmist and Paul would certainly not argue with her. They simply would want us never to dismiss or underestimate the power of the promise that comes to us from God: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
Right now, my friends, I am holding onto that promise for dear life and I hope you will join me.