Sunday, December 24, 2006

The “Peace on Earth” Part of Christmas

The “Peace on Earth” Part of Christmas
Christmas Eve 2006
All Saints Church, Pasadena ~ Susan Russell

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among all people.”

And there you have it. The familiar words that conclude the Christmas Story in Luke’s gospel echo in our ears once again on this Christmas Eve as we gather surrounded by light and beauty and music and community to celebrate the mystery of Christmas. We welcome again the promise of new life in the birth of this Christmas baby. We wonder again at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the traditions it inspires: the mystical longing of the creature for the creator -- the finite for the infinite -- the human for the divine.

It is a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom -- a longing that is represented tonight for us as Christians in the baby in the manger -- the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to become one of us. Yes, we manifest the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is love incarnate came down at Christmas to be among us as one of us. Came to show us how to share that love with a world in desperate need of it – to a world yearning for the “peace on earth, good will among all people” the angels proclaimed.

The “peace on earth” part of Christmas is arguably the crescendo of the Christmas story but twenty five years ago tonight my attention was on another part … on the “and she brought forth her first born son” part. What must it have been like, I wondered, for a teenaged mother to bring forth her first-born child and cradle him in a manger rather than a bassinet in an occupied territory under martial law with the words of the angel who announced his coming still echoing in her head? It was the year I heard the Christmas story quite specifically through the lens of my own experience; the particularity my impending motherhood. On Christmas Eve 1981 I was not only pregnant for the first time, I was waaaaaay past “great with child.” Actually, I’d hit “great with child” back about October, reached “enormous with child” sometime in November and by “O Holy Night” was pretty much “immobilized with child.”


Although Jamie came into the world a week later – on New Year’s Eve -- on that particular Christmas Eve for me it was all about the baby. And in what seems like the blink of an eye here it is 25 years later -- and this Christmas Eve my New Year’s Eve baby is a helicopter crew chief serving on active duty in Iraq -- so “peace on earth, good will among all people” – the crescendo of the Christmas story – is very much the focus of both the prayers in my heart and the music in my head this Christmas Eve.

Beyond the din of flairs that spin
and missiles aimed to crush
There can be found the purest sound
An unfamiliar hush
Peace on earth, Peace on earth
Shanti, Salaam, Shalom
Peace on earth, Peace on earth
Shanti, Salaam, Shalom

That shalom – that “unfamiliar hush” -- is the peace on earth I’m praying for this Christmas – the shalom that doesn't just mean the peace that comes when we're no longer at war but the shalom that means that all human beings live together as siblings, at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of creation. The shalom that is Hebrew for what we describe as “turning the human race into the human family” – the peace on earth that we are called to be about as Christians – not just this Christmas season but all year long.

For peace is only an echo tonight in so many parts of the world. In Bethlehem – once again a little town in an occupied territory -- in Lebanon and in Darfur -- in Israel and Iraq and Afghanistan – the list is long and sobering and the challenges standing between just solutions and lasting peace great indeed. Closer to home, within our own Episcopal Church, I believe it grieves the heart of God in the week before Christmas there was news of Episcopal congregations in Virginia choosing the bias and bigotry represented by doctrines of exclusion over the "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All" incarnated by the baby in Bethlehem. In the streets and in the hearts and in the minds of so many throughout this world and throughout this church peace is in very short supply. And if our “Christmas peace” has only to do with the candles, the quietness of this Christmas Eve, this silent night, this beautiful sanctuary then it’s a lovely experience … but like an aspirin it will last about four hours if we’re really lucky.

I love the story Ed tells about the difference between peace lovers and peacemakers. Every contestant in every beauty pageant when asked her deepest desires says, “My deepest desire is for world peace.” But simply loving peace will not change the world. And simply “putting Christ back in Christmas” won’t either. Again this year I’ve been bombarded by the sincerely Christian folk busily emailing everybody they know about how important it is to put Christ back into Christmas … and yet the church so often seems content to leave him there — to receive with joy the gift of the Word made flesh on this Christmas Eve and fail to live as the Body of Christ the other 364 days of the year.

This Christmas Eve more than ever I believe that if our eagerness to worship the baby in the Bethlehem manger is not matched by our willingness to follow in the footsteps of the radical rabbi he grew up to be then our earnest Christmas prayers for “peace on earth” will have as much impact on this broken world as the earnest words of every peace loving beauty pageant contestant who ever lived. My brothers and sisters, we can’t just sing peace on earth – we have to bring peace on earth.

To do that we have to go out into this Christmas night and into this New Year and continue in the All Saints Church tradition of putting our faith into action. That means prayers and protests; speaking up and stepping out; offering whenever and wherever possible the Good News of God’s shalom that we claim as God’s long-range strategic plan for us and for all creation.

And the Good News I want to share with you tonight is that this year Santa came early. Our All Saints stocking was full this week of opportunities to offer that message to a community and a world yearning to hear it. The local TV news aired a story contrasting the open doors of All Saints Church with the closed minds of the Virginia congregations. The Pasadena Star-News made it front page news when the rector’s call for donations of coats for the homeless resulted in an avalanche of outerwear in the All Saints office. And the Pasadena Weekly cover article – Pulpit Power – is another chapter in the ongoing saga of All Saints standing firm in its commitment to preach peace from this pulpit: in and out of election seasons!

God’s inclusive love made available to absolutely everybody – cleaning out closets in response to the needs of “the least of these” among us – preaching peace on earth, good will to all not just Christmas Eve but 24/7: that’s taking the Body of Christ out into the world to make a difference, not leaving the baby in the manger to make a Christmas card! And let’s give thanks tonight for the early Christmas present of the media spotlight helping us spread that Good News – telling the story of a church committed to being peacemakers even when that means we must live into the tension of speaking truth to power.

Because all that attention also means that we live with those who describe us as “that political church” as if that’s a bad thing … as it in challenging the systems that foster oppression, that make war and that perpetuate violence is anything other than following in the footsteps of the peacemakers who have gone before us: of the Isaiah the prophet and Jesus the Christ; of Martin King and Desmond Tutu, of all those who have not just loved peace but have worked for it. AND I am convinced there are others who are coming toward us for precisely those reasons – those who have in their hearts the deep desire to be peacemakers and who recognize in our witness that this is a community of faith that will support and empower them to make a difference. Those who recognize that what Howard Thurman calls “the work of Christmas” is what we do all year long:

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To teach the nations
To bring Christ to all
To make music in the heart.

The work of Christmas is at work in Kirkuk, Iraq tonight where my New Year’s Eve baby is playing Santa and handing out the 400+ Christmas cards sent by this congregation with love and prayers to our troops in harm’s way. And may we – each and every one of us -- take with us into this O Holy Night the music in the heart that is the peace on earth part of Christmas – and be given the grace in the New Year coming to not just sing peace on earth, but to bring it.

Peace on earth, Peace on earth
Shanti, Salaam, Shalom
Peace on earth, Peace on earth
Shanti, Salaam, Shalom

Merry Christmas. Amen

1 comment:

revsusan said...

Yep, "The Work of Christmas" found its way into my Christmas sermon AGAIN ... five services down and one to go here at All Saints tonight ... taking a break from the crowds to just reflect for a minute to breate it all in and say thanks for the privilege of doing this work. Likely 3500 folks have been through the All Saints doors today and with "The Midnight" yet to go there's another line of folks streaming into the church as I write.

Merry Christmas, everybody! (And thank God for Boxing Day and the office is CLOSED! :)