Third Sunday in Easter 2011

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 8, 2011 (Easter 3, Year A)

It has been a week of powerful stories and images and emotions. The death of Osama bin Laden has stirred up deep passions and feelings in this country and throughout the world. And it seems particularly poignant for Christians coming so soon after Holy Week – a week of powerful stories and images and emotions.

The past seven days has dredged up old hurts and exposed unhealed wounds. It has brought out euphoria in some and reflection in others. It has brought back memories of what we were doing and where we all were on that beautifully bright and clear morning of September 11,2001. And it has reminded us of just how much the world has changed over the last decade. 

Ten years of pent up anger and frustration came pouring out last Sunday night outside the White House, at the site of Ground Zero, and an impromptu celebration even rang out on Boston Common with flag waving and chants of “USA.” For young people who have grown up under the specter of bin Laden’s reign of terror, his death was their equivalent of tearing down the Berlin Wall. The “Wicked Witch of the World” was dead and the celebration ensued. 

I’m not going to stand up here and tell you how to feel about Osama bin Laden’s death. We all come at this from different perspectives with different experiences and different vantage points. I spent the first anniversary of 9-11 as rector of a parish 25 miles north of the Twin Towers. A number of those folks worked in lower Manhattan and experienced the full horror of that day. Everyone else in the community was touched by it either directly or tangentially. And that first anniversary was a tough one for all of us. 

There’s no doubt that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. And there’s no sympathy for a man who placed such little value on human life that he ordered the slaughter of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. No matter how much terrorism is couched in the language of religion, it is not “of God.” It never has been and never shall be. In bin Laden’s case, religious extremism is simply the cloak of evil; the outer garment of sinfulness.

So while I understand the euphoria in the wake of bin Laden’s death, I admit it also made me uncomfortable – there was something incongruous about rejoicing in a violent death even for one who himself so violently killed. I’m not disputing the necessity or even the benefit of the military operation; simply the public reaction to it. Because there’s a shadow side to this euphoria. Several incidents of violence against American Muslims were reported this week and a mosque in Portland, Maine, was vandalized with anti-Islam graffiti. And so while we hear a lot about closure, there’s no true closure when our Muslim brothers and sisters are being attacked for their faith; there’s no true closure when war and terror continues to rage throughout the globe; there’s no true closure when the reign of God on earth remains so elusive. 

As that beacon of Christian witness Martin Luther King, Jr. once put it, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

So where is this love that drives out hate? While it can often be hard to recognize, it is embodied by Jesus Christ. The one who shines as a light in the darkness does indeed drive out hate and creates space for peace and, yes, justice in the face of injustice.

This morning we hear the story of the Road to Emmaus from Luke’s gospel. And it’s all about recognition. The two disciples walking along don’t recognize the risen Christ as he joins them for a leg of their journey. And they can’t believe this guy hasn’t heard the big news of what’s been going on around Jerusalem – about what’s happened to this man named Jesus. How he was arrested, brought up on trial, killed, and has supposedly risen from the dead. As readers of the text we see from the first that it’s Jesus himself who is walking right alongside these two men. And we wonder, how can they be so blind? What’s wrong with these two men that they can’t see that it’s Jesus? How can they not recognize him? It’s not until they invite him to stay for a meal that his presence is made known in the breaking of the bread. In an instant, the scales drop from their eyes and they realize that it was Jesus all along who was walking with them and opening up the Scriptures to them so that their hearts were burning inside them.

And how often do we do the same thing? How often do we fail to notice Jesus’ presence in our own lives? We regularly recognize Jesus but only in retrospect. We look back and say, “Oh, that’s what Jesus was doing there” or “Aha, now I see why I was led into that situation.” Perhaps at this moment in history we’re all a bit blinded as to where God’s hand is in all of this. And I hope and pray that after the initial euphoria dies down there will be great recognition and understanding about the events of the past week. The recognition of Jesus, the recognition of peace, love, hope, and freedom from the fear that has gripped us for the past ten years. 

Earlier this week Anne and I spent a couple of days at the annual Clergy Conference with all the clergy from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts (I know you’re jealous). But amid the compelling and not-so-compelling sessions, we heard from a small group of Muslims who worship each Friday afternoon in the basement of the Cathedral on Tremont Street. One of the women who spoke is the Muslim chaplain at Tufts University and she shared something that really resonated with me. The word jihad which we understand from Muslim extremists as the basis for “holy war” is not the primary meaning in the Koran. Rather it refers to the very personal inner struggle against the forces of darkness that resides within the soul of each person – it is what we go through every day. 

Choosing a spirit of peace each day can be an inner struggle for each one of us. Especially when so much of the human spirit cries out for anger and vengeance and hate and revenge. Jesus’ charge to love our enemies is difficult. It’s probably the hardest thing any of us are called to do. Especially when that enemy has both taken innocent lives and taken away our own innocence. It’s hard to hear that line from Proverbs, “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.” Because that’s the natural inclination.

Despite bin Laden’s death, evil is alive and well in the world. I wish the master terrorist who was gunned down was more than a symbol and personification of evil; that his death would mark the end of terror and fear and evil. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. Because the only antidote to fear is faith. That’s what drives out the evil darkness of this world. And the light of Christ that shines brightly during this Easter season and becomes known to us in the breaking of the bread is what we rely upon to lead us into all truth. Not a military operation no matter how well planned and carried out; not the destruction of a man who symbolizes all that is wrong with the world; but the gentle presence of Jesus Christ whose will for all of humanity is peace and salvation.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

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