Wednesday night at the Networks senior high youth group meeting I participated in an "Ask the Pastor" question & answer night. Questions submitted ahead of time ranged from "Was Jesus Caucasian?" and "Why don't people in the Bible have last names" to "How do I know I have a soul?" The pastors helping out at the middle school meeting and I received these about a week in advance to start formulating our answers which was helpful. On Monday, though, Elliott Krizek, our Networks youth director, very wisely sent out an additional question that was timely in the face of the news we were all processing from the night before. Elliott asked, "What should be the Christian response to the death of Osama bin Laden?"
It was a great question and so incredibly important for us all to consider. Our conversation on Wednesday night made me think, in fact, of the scripture I was pondering for worship today. It felt like in a way we were re-enacting the walk to Emmaus. The disciples had experienced something life-rattling. Reactions in the different gospels include great joy and exuberance, fear and comfort-seeking, even silence in the face of confusion over the missing body and the empty tomb.
The two disciples here in Luke's gospel, Cleopas and another who is unnamed do something completely different. They do pretty much what we did at youth group. They did what literally millions of people, including quite a few in the Christian community, did on Facebook or Twitter or other social media outlets. They got together to tell the story of what had happened. They got out and walked and while they walked they talked, about all that had happened. And hopefully you noticed that when they did just that Jesus showed up among them, blessing them with his presence, comforting them through their conversation together.
This is exactly what I want us to spend some time doing together here this morning; walking together on a road after something life-rattling for some of us individually, but for many or most of us collectively, I want us to talk about the things that happened. I believe that as we do so, Jesus will walk with us and join with us in our conversation.
As soon as the question was posed to me on "Ask the Pastor" night, "What should be the Christian response to the death of Osama bin Laden?" I answered how any other pastor would in the same situation. I immediately threw a question back to the youth! It's the same question I put before you here today, "What reactions to the news did you have or did you see?" There is no right or wrong answer here. This is a time of sharing without judgement. Just what did you see or hear or feel yourself as the news was broken and the story unfolded.
Why do you think people reacted the way they did? What feelings or emotions or experiences were behind such a diversity of responses?
One thing of which I was reminded this week as I reacted and as I watched the reactions of others in person, on the internet, and throughout the news media is that everyone has a story. Behind every reaction and feeling and response is a story, and behind many of our feelings about what took place this week is often a story about what happened on September 11, 2001 or maybe even a story of what happened on December 7, 1941, or maybe a story about a loved one who has served in the military in the last 10 years, or maybe some other story that was brought back to the raw and tender surface as soon as the news was heard. Everyone has a story, and our stories are usually behind our responses.
People of faith are people of stories. Our shared stories are what we have to connect us to one other. The first this Cleopas and a fellow disciple did when they heard the life-changing news of Jesus' resurrection was get together and tell stories. They first thing they did when they found a stranger who didn't seem to know anything about what had happened was tell him the story. The first thing Jesus did when he got a word in edgewise was to place himself in the midst of the story of God's redemption of the world. He claimed the story of how God called and worked through Moses as his own story. He jumped right in the work of the prophets who called God's people back to faithfulness and showed how he was part of that story.
We are a people of stories and the way we experience things, the way we react to news and events all depends on the stories that have priority in our lives. In the hours and first few days that followed the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden we saw a diversity of reactions. Many of us FELT in in our own bodies, minds and souls a diversity of feelings - - comfort of a threat removed, sorrow at a human death, frustration with our common human corruption, pride in the bravery of soldiers, confidence the leadership of our government, thankfulness at justice served.
As I watched reactions and feelings come pouring in where I was, connected to what was going on only by a computer screen, I saw each of these and more, and then I also saw something very disheartening. I saw brothers and sisters in Christ turn on one another, attacking and debating whose response was was the right response to the news we all received, the news none of us were prepared to receive.
Good people of faith forgot the biblical response of celebration, of release of emotions like Miriam's after the Israelite slaves crossed the Red Sea safely. She sang aloud with joy and exuberance, “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider God has thrown into the sea." They attacked people whose first reaction was joy and release. Other good people of faith forgot the wisdom of scripture that warns against feelings of triumphalism and joy at the expense of others' pain, "Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble."(Proverbs 24:17) They attacked those who called for peace and restraint.
A colleague of mine, Tripp Hudgins, an American Baptist pastor in the suburbs of Chicago, among several others pointed me this week towards and editorial about this international news written by an American rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Creditor. "He reminded the rest of us that Jews were [in the midst of their annual remembrance of] the Holocaust when the news came across the wires. Story upon story upon story…. He wrote of the confusion of emotions available to all of us. Some of us remembered 9-11 with great fear. Some rejoiced in the streets. He asked,
'How do we respond when the architect of enormous evil is brought to justice? What does it mean for us, as Jesus, as Americans, that Osama Bin Laden has been killed?'
According to a Midrash [a Jewish teaching story that expands on the words of scripture], when the angels rejoiced at the victory of God and the deliverance of the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, they invited God to join in their celebration. God declined, saying, 'How can I rejoice when my children are drowning?' God's response, as intuited by our tradition, teaches us that the very people who enslaved and tortured us were still human beings when viewed through sacred eyes.'
The diverse witness in Scripture to how we human beings respond to death and victory mirrors the responses we have witnessed even this week. The stories that are behind our own responses are not new stories - - stories of pain and loss, of family pride, of national tragedy and fear of our common enemies. Yet as people of faith, particularly people of the CHRISTIAN faith we share yet another story that needs to inform our response to this and any news we receive. It is the Easter story.
"Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who do not know the things that have take place there in these days? The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed an sword before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive."
He is alive! The Lord has risen! He has risen indeed! This is our story. This is our core story as people of Christ, as Christian people. This story above all stories, all stories in Scripture, all stories in our own lives, all stories that come across our screens and over the radio, and in our newspapers, is the story that defines who we are and ultimately how we react. Death is not to be taken lightly. Death is not to be laughed about or skipped over as unimportant. Death is not to be rejoiced or dismissed. Death is solemn. Death is holy. Death is so final that God got involved with it, God experienced it.
The sacred eyes of Jesus looked at his enemies from the cross and loved them. The sacred eyes of Jesus turned to those who did him harm and begged for their forgiveness when they never asked for it. And the sacred eyes of Jesus look even at us who experience complicated emotions of anger and vengeance and satisfaction and grief at the death of another, and those eyes gaze on us with a longing for peace. Because death is so serious that God decided to conquer it. Death is so serious that God decided to intervene and redeem it.
Jesus our Lord, Jesus our teacher, Jesus our brother, Jesus our God, experienced death, but death could not hold him. This is the story out of which all of our responses must flow. This is the story which we must tell, "The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed."
The power of God is stronger than the power of death. This is our story.
The power of life is stronger than the power of death.
This is what we believe.
This is what we celebrate, not that another human being,
no matter how hurtful,
no matter how dangerous,
no matter how cold-blooded in his calculations against individuals and nations, was put to death.
We celebrate that
in the resurrection of Jesus there is new life.
In the resurrection of Jesus there is new hope.
In the resurrection of Jesus is comfort and joy and especially peace.