Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 5:9; John 14:27
The Reverend Tom Herbek
December 10, 2017
We seem to be a long way from beating our instruments of war into tools to feed the hungry- our swords into plowshares. We seem to be a long way from no longer learning war any more. In fact, when you see some of what happens in the name of Christianity, we seem to be a long way from following the Prince of Peace.
In fact, this one who came at Christmas to bring a different kind of peace may not be very recognizable at Christmas. Every Christmas for the past few years, the battle lines have been drawn for the “war for Christmas.” I wonder what the Prince of Peace thinks about this whole thing. It’s a battle being waged in post offices, schools, shopping malls and other places every Christmas.
Actually, the battle for Christmas has been going on for a very long time. Our Congregational ancestors, the Puritans and Pilgrims, refused to celebrate Christmas in New England. Disagreeing with the early Roman church, who established the holiday around a pre-Christian celebration to remember the poor, the Puritans and Pilgrims considered Christmas to be a secular, not a religious holiday.
Christmas was set by the early Roman church during the winter solstice when the days grow dark quickly, and was designed to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which occurred on December 25th. The Puritans and Pilgrims believed that these pagan customs of no work, of feasting, and of gift-giving were inappropriate for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
While the Puritans and Pilgrims in New England were not celebrating the day at all, the Southern colonists in America celebrated Christmas on December 25th in the same style as their British counterparts. They had banquets and family visits, and gifts for the poor, and at midnight on Christmas Eve, firecrackers and guns were used to welcome the Christ child. So the war for Christmas – or against it – was being waged in the very early days of the settling of the American colonies by European immigrants with differing views on how it should be recognized.
Today the war is being fought wherever an innocent checkout clerk offers a customer a cheerful “Happy Holidays” and gets an earful in response. “You should be ashamed. It’s ‘Merry Christmas’ you should be saying. Jesus is the reason for all this.”
This is followed by the irate customer indignantly snatching up their packages and self-righteously storming out of the store. “Merry Christmas”, indeed.
It’s time for a little peace on earth for those who are too indignant to recognize it. It’s time for a little less arrogance by those who believe they alone understand Christmas. It is ironic that Christmas has become an occasion to make harried salesclerks feel even worse, to make those who disagree seem like less worthy believers, to focus on words rather than actions, and to miss the whole idea of Peace on Earth.
The focus for this time of year should be on healing those things that divide us, not exacerbating them.
Ever since Kent Nerburn decided to come here, and I read his book, Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, I have been waiting to use one of his stories. It is one of my favorites of all his stories. He introduces it in this way:
If we think about the meanest, most hate-filled people we know, chances are we have seen a tiny place where they, too, can be touched – thoughts of a grandchild, the love of a dog or kitten, a memory of better times. But they are so armored in their hatred that they don’t want us to see this. They will go to any length to hide their softness, because it is a window into the vulnerability of their own hearts, and the only protection they have is in the armor of their own hate.
But if we take the chance and plant a seed of love- knowing that the ground on which it falls, though rocky, still has enough goodness for love to take root and grow- a miracle can occur.
And now for his story:
I remember one instance when I put on my Santa suit and drove to a particularly violent part of town. It was a housing project notorious for gangs and drugs, and the residents lived in fear behind locked doors and barred windows.
I had stepped from my car and started to walk toward a community center a block away. I always tried to park a distance from my destination, because it seemed wrong for children to see Santa stepping from the driver’s seat of a car. As I was walking, a group of teenaged boys gathered around and began taunting me. This was not joking; it was blood sport. Something bad was going to happen.
Soon another group of young men in their early twenties came cruising up in their car. There were about six of them. They, too, were obviously up to no good. When they saw what was taking place they hopped out and came toward me. I expected the worst and had images of being left beaten and bloody on the sidewalk of one of the meanest streets in town.
But the young men walked right past me to the teenagers. The biggest and most threatening of the men grabbed one of the younger boys by the scruff of his neck and said, “You don’t mess with Santa.” Then, turning to me, he said, “Sorry, Santa. These kids are just ignorant. Come on. You got work to do.”
He led me through the neighborhood, building by building, to places where, under normal circumstances, I never would have dared to go. I can still remember the sound of the unlocking doors every time someone looked out from behind barred windows and saw that it was Santa at their step.
Soon people were coming out into the street and children were flocking around me. The young boys who only minutes before had been my harassers now were organizing the children into lines, telling them to behave and to wait nicely for their chance to talk with Santa.
There is not a person living on that street who would not tell you that it is a dangerous place, filled with drugs and crime and hate. But on that day, doors were opened, and we all had a glimpse into the unprotected human heart. And what we saw was not hate, but the deep and unquenchable desire to give and receive love.
It is moments like this that must give us the courage to sow love in the face of hate. For if we don’t – if we turn away or meet that hate with a hatred of our own – we are allowing the darkness in the world to increase. We are refusing to trust in the power of our own love, and by turning away, we are allowing the world around us to travel a little further down the road to darkness.
Kent Nerburn sums it up by saying:
If we concern ourselves only with the good people on earth, we are not truly doing God’s work. And if we allow the hateful actions of others to determine our response to them, we are becoming mirrors to their hate. We are allowing them to set our foot upon the road that they are already traveling and moving us all further from the path of love that we know is the way of God and the way of life.
This is no small challenge. It asks us to overcome our fear and to have faith in the power of goodness. It asks us to believe that our own halting love is strong enough to take root in a field that seems choked with the weeds of hate.
The whole point of Christmas is that God came among us as the Prince of Peace, a living example of God’s way of peace, of concern for the poor and the suffering, to point us to wholeness and healing.
Jesus did not come to create divisions among us, but to bring us together. Jesus did not come to be a superior religious figure, but to serve those in need.
The truth is that, in Jesus, God came to be beside the people- all people. God sent God’s son to show us the way of peace on earth, goodwill toward all people. Jesus entered our world as a smiling, helpless baby- not as a mighty warrior, showing us that we don’t have to fight for God’s love.
We don’t have to earn it, to possess it, or to hoard it for ourselves. We only have to accept it and embrace it, and share it with our hurting world.
So let us follow the Prince of Peace this Christmas. Let us help those around us to forego the “war for Christmas”, and let us all do a lot more loving, and work toward a lot more healing.
Maybe then the rest of the world would look at Christmas, and Christians, a lot differently. Maybe then, we will all find a lot more peace on earth, a lot more goodwill toward all people.