“Taken from Evil’s Grasp”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday. November 7, 2021
Reading: Matthew 6:5-13
This past year we have encountered the struggles, the dangers, and the pathos of war as our forces have left Afghanistan, after being there for a very long time. It has caused us, I think, to revisit the impact of war because are concerned for those left behind – for the translators, the supporters, the staff, those who had to come out safely, and those who feared for their lives as civilians.
We have had to wrestle with the question that some of the veterans of Afghanistan have asked: “Was what we did worth it? Was there any good achieved?” We live with the PTSD that has affected those who were there, and the lasting impact on lives. Indeed, we might say as I saw in one plaque not long ago, for those sent and left behind, and for those who have returned but are never the same, we remember. It is not only those who lost their lives, who served in a magnanimous and a brave way, but for those who carry the scars of conflict.
We seem to think that our confidence in ourselves is so great that such things will not continue, that we will not perpetrate the inhumanity that is war. Even as we speak now there are conflicts in Tigray, in Mali, in Sudan. There are always potential places of conflict in Taiwan and Kashmir and beyond. We never know when the ravages of war will raise their ugly heads again and we’re often unsure how we should deal with this reality.
Likewise, we always tell ourselves after a conflict, we will never get into this again. I was reading a wonderful passage in the book, First Drafts, about when the Vimy Ridge Memorial was unveiled in 1936, and the then king of England, Edward VIII the Duke of Windsor, met some of the family members who had lost loved ones at Vimy. There was a Mrs. C.S. Wood of Winnipeg who was the mother of twelve sons, eleven of whom went to France and five of them lie there forever. She was greeted by the king, and their conversation was as follows. “Madam, you had sons in the war?”
“It’s a great honour, sir, to have you speak to me.” she said.
He had hold of her old hand. “What do you think of our beautiful memorial?” the king asked.
“It is lovely. But I went and saw the trenches. I did not know until now. Wasn’t it dreadful our boys had to live like that? “
“Please God,” said the king, “it shall never happen again.” 1936. Please, God, it shall never happen again.
I believe that in the face of the realities of wars and conflicts, of the sacrifices, like this mother from Winnipeg made of half her family, we need to do a deeper analysis of war and sacrifice and honour and courage. I have taken, perhaps, what might seem an irrelevant text – one that actually we repeat almost every week, if not every week in church and beyond – from Jesus’ own teaching in Matthew 6 on how to pray: The Lord’s Prayer. I don’t know if you’re like me but I often find that the Lord’s Prayer just washes over me, and that I recite it as rote, as if it has passed through my lips but has not touched my heart and my mind. So, when I come upon a passage like this one, I do not stop and think about it, but on a day like this we should. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” “Deliver us from evil.”
Evil, in the biblical sense is not some sort of philosophical power or anomaly; it is very real. In fact, one of the translations of this says “we must be delivered from the evil one” – that evil is personified in the scriptures. Jesus, in John’s gospel talks about evil as something that kills, steals, and destroys. It kills, it steals, and it destroys. Jesus, of course, was very much aware of the conflict between good and evil. If the cross is not an absolute statement of the sacrifice of the Son of God in the face of evil, I don’t know what is. He bore that cross for the sake of delivering us from evil. Therefore, when Jesus prayed this, he did not just pray it with his lips; he prayed it with his life. Because evil is something that can grasp not only individuals but cultures and nations. It can manifest in some horrendous atrocities where it kills, steals, and destroys. If Auschwitz, Srebrenica and Kigali are not manifestations of evil, killing and stealing and destroying, I don’t know what is. It is something that takes life and abandons reason and compassion.
It’s also very seductive, it seems like it can lead to glorious ends, and that evil itself can be seen as a good – so much so that people are blind to its impact. So how should we pray? How should we live on this Remembrance Sunday? When we pray the words of Jesus, “Deliver us from evil” what do we really mean? I’m suggesting three things. There could be a multiplicity of things, but I’ll keep it to three for the sake of our service today. First, you remember. You remember the ravages and the effects of evil. of what it can do to human life and the cost borne because of it.
I take two examples of accounts from those who have served on the front lines of battle. One of them takes us back to World War One. A Canadian soldier wrote this in the battle in Lens:
We’re going to attack the left flank of the city of Lens. Today we’re getting ready for the assault, repeating many exercises over and over. The plane is dotted with various coloured ribbons that indicate enemy trenches. A and B companies will be part of the first wave, so I will be one of the first to reach German trenches if I’m not hit in no man’s land.
During the rest periods between exercises I chat about the affair with veterans who have lived through tragic times. They’re a little anxious, but they also show flashes of pride. They tell me that Lens is probably well defended. The enemy, which has been there since the beginning of the war must be well entrenched. In the afternoon, the men in my platoon go to the armoury to have their bayonets sharpened. Brr, it gives me a chill. I have a feeling that this time it’s going to be rough. This evening I climbed a hill lined with bushes just to be alone for a while. I don’t have any combat experience. This is my first, and maybe my last. I know that many of us will not come back. Will I be one of them?
As I went down the hill, I thought how good it would be when the war is over to see the people I left back home.
The one who wrote this did not return home. The terror, the cost, the bravery, the cold bayonets sharpened. The cost of war.
Many decades later in Kigali, near a refugee camp, a young officer who was serving under General Dallaire wrote this:
One day in the refugee camp I was subjected to machine gun and rifle fire. Crowds of refugees poured into the building nearby. As I turned to follow the crowd and seek protection, an eight- to ten-year-old boy standing next to me was shot in the leg. I remember him flipping over and collapsing on the ground yelling in pain for help. Upon my return from Rwanda, some of my peers and superiors at work noticed some changes in my behaviour. I had little patience. I was tense. I was physically angry with superiors.
But then I started having nightmares and some nights my wife would have to wake me and shake me out of the nightmares. I was not happy at work. I found my job back in Ottawa irrelevant and did not find any of my past hobbies interesting. I eventually closed down my woodworking business, which I’d started before my departure to Rwanda. The nightmares are to this day pretty standard. Lots of killing; lots of dead bodies. I relive the shooting incidents and see the boy suffering and many other scenes too often. One particular night however, I had a nightmare in which I could see myself killing people as opposed to only witnessing the horrors being committed by others. And now they’re part of my daydream. My daydream.
We need to remember. We need to remember the sacrifices of those who put themselves on the line amid evil and terror. If our culture decides to forget these things, even more readily we will repeat the errors of the past. I plead for our society to remember.
Next is resistance. The creed of the United Church asks us to resist evil, but what does that mean? Well, it certainly means that there are those who must put themselves in harm’s way, who must take up the mantle passed to them and obey their orders. There are those who pay the cost. As I walked around this sanctuary on a quiet afternoon this week, knowing this is my last Remembrance Day service with you, I stopped and looked at the wall with the names of those who laid down their lives. To resist evil exacts a cost. It also means to resist those things that cause evil to prevail. Those things that make for wars and conflict: hyper-nationalism, racism, and the desire for power at the expense of human life. The innate desire as sinful human beings to have our own way at the expense of someone else, even if it means the taking of human life. To resist evil is to resist those things that give evil room. We must always be vigilant and look in our own hearts and souls to see the seeds of evil.
Finally, Jesus tells us that it is religion – the real meaning of the word, is to have a body of faith and beliefs – that is essential in the face of evil. Jesus is praying to his Heavenly Father. He’s not praying to a brick wall. He is praying to a God who is forever active, a God who lives and moves and has his being according to the apostle Paul. A God who is active.
The problem is that evil loves a vacuum. When there is an absence of faith, an absence of recognition of something beyond us, or that we are the only ones to whom we’re ultimately accountable, evil finds a home. When we recognize in both our lives, and our actions and convictions that there is a God who transcends our own powers, as we looked at last week in terms of sovereignty, then we know that we are accountable, and that very God, in the Lord Jesus Christ, is none other than the Prince of Peace.
We might say to ourselves as enlightened human beings that we do not have to worry anymore about whether we will be in positions of conflict. We’re just fine. Oh no, we’re not. We are not just fine. There is always the temptation to do evil. The only way to resist that temptation is to cast your heart, your lives, and your minds on to the Grace of God in Jesus Christ. There is no other source that can grant us both compassion and forgiveness, a confession of sin, and redemption, other than our God.
When we hear the sabers rustling again, when people talk glibly of war, when people become statistics and not subjects, when there are those who feel it’s expedient to take the lives of others, just remember there is one to whom we’re ultimately all accountable. One whose love and mercy and goodness is greater than any evil, and that is Jesus Christ, our Lord.
For those who have given their lives, as named by Lieutenant Colonel Temple this morning, those on the walls of our church, those we have known, and those from whom we have descended, may we have the grace to leave them in the same hands of that same Lord. May we thank them for their sacrifice. But pray that this will not happen again. Amen.