I remember the day as if it were yesterday. That day11 years ago. It was a Friday when an email from a congregant in my Queens church arrived late Friday morning. “I want you to know my family is safe…. My grandson, Bobby, attends an elementary school in that district but not Sandy Hook where this horrific shooting tragedy occurred.”
Eleven years ago, on December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old gunman had just murdered his mother and killed a total of 27 people, 20 of them children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Images of that carnage came back to me this week on the heels of yet another school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan this past Wednesday, killing four students, about the age the Sandy Hook kids would have been had they lived. Along with the memory of 10 killed at Santa Fe High School in 2018. 17 shot and killed at Margory Stoneman Douglas High School. Remember Columbine? Remember Las Vegas? Aurora? Virginia Tech. Last Wednesday a music director for 23 years at a Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL shot to death his wife, son and daughter for no apparent reason. Last Monday a 14-year-old was shot 18 times while waiting at a bus stop. Omicron, the latest mutant of COVID, has arrived on our shores threatening the fragile process we have been making. Inflation and other economic issues are creating a chronic sense of anxiety in people. That’s just scratching the tip of the surface of conflict and pain we are confronted with on a daily basis.
How do we take it all in? How do we light the candle of peace within a context of violence, conflict and turmoil that plagues our world and our nation -- that exists even in our very churches? In our very hearts? One family in great anguish shared with me recently about the difficulty they had getting services for their teenaged son with an impulse control disorder. They had decent insurance. But there wasn’t an adolescent psychiatrist in network within a reasonable distance. When their son had to be hospitalized, this couple had to spend over an hour and ½ finding an in-network hospital in their region. They’re among of the lucky ones. So many lack the resources, the knowledge and the advocacy needed to get help, just like the homeless women we talked about last week. How do we create peace in the face of all these scenarios?
Let’s be clear, violence and injustice have been a constant in human history. Since the sin in the garden, greed, self-righteousness and hate have resided in the human heart. The Bible is a spiritual mirror that reflects and points back to us our yearnings, our sin as well as our virtues. Cain kills Abel. The people rebel with the tower of Babel. Evil grows so profoundly that God sends a flood to cleanse the land. Jacob cheats Esau. Joseph’s brothers throw him down a well. The people of Israel are oppressed into slavery. Once freed, the people worship the golden calf. On and on God intervenes but the people chose the path of evil and idolatry instead. And that is just within the first five books of the bible!
So, we are tired. Tired of all the fighting. The hate. The prejudice. The divisions. The compulsion to sin. We want it all to stop. We want to be transformed at last by the birth of Jesus, by love and joy. And have peace at last. Heavenly peace. Peace in our hearts to get through the day. Peace in our world so we can truly care for each other, despite our differences.
These yearnings tug at us as we enter our second week of Advent – the week we are invited to reflect on peace. Peace is not merely the absence of conflict. We’re not merely thinking about peace in terms of no conflict, no fighting, no disharmony between peoples in the world. Ultimately, the vision that Scripture gives us of peace will include that. There is a day that is coming when all wars and all fighting will cease. But the absence of conflict alone is not peace.
Look at a graveyard. In a graveyard, there’s no conflict. There is peace but no life. We read on the gravestones, “Rest in peace,” but that’s not the biblical picture of peace. The biblical picture of peace is more like a garden than a graveyard. It’s a place where there is life, where there is flourishing, where there is bounty, where there is a fruitfulness in every conceivable way. That’s the biblical idea of peace. Growth. Reaching your potential. Different species of plants growing and prospering together. Biblical notions of peace come from Isaiah 11: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…”
Isaiah paints a picture that adversaries, people who are polar opposites learn to get together through the power of the Holy Spirit. We house the holy by embracing each other, with all our contrasts, variety of believes and convictions. God has brought us together, here in this church, in our particular families, the nations of the world not to lord it over each other, not to proclaim whose right or whose wrong, but to love each other. Love transcends differences. Friends, it is love that brings about peace.
Love not the same as liking. We don’t have to like each other – our temperaments vary and we may strongly disagree with each other’s beliefs and actions. But Jesus commands us to love each other. Love isn’t an emotion. It is the force of action, of will treat each other as God ordains, especially those we don’t care for. Remember Paul’s powerful words from 1Cor. 11: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. If we love as the Bible mandates us to, it makes us peace-makers, children of God as Jesus declares.
It will help us to recall what we know about Christmas: Jesus didn’t come when things were perfect and peaceful. Jesus was born in a time of foreign oppression. His mother could have been stoned if Joseph had not intervened. There was no room at the inn. Jesus was placed in a manger. King Herod ordered the baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. Christmas was one big inconvenience. None of the pain and injustice stopped Jesus from being present with us.
So, Jesus wants to come this very day to love us, and in doing so to bring his peace into our imperfect, fractured, conflicted hearts. Will we invite him, and house the holy? As we listen to our final carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” we are reminded this song was one of the first social-justice oriented hymn, written on the eve of the Civil War, the throes of a society by the Industrial Revolution, women beginning to fight for the right of the vote, among other challenges. In the midst of all we face, we sing, “peace on the earth, goodwill to all.” Let this be our hearts deepest desire today.
So, this we week we need to make room for peace. Set aside our opinions. Set aside our judgments. Let us make room for each other. Especially those whom we may not be in agreement with. Let us seek each other’s welfare, in doing so may we discover the Peace of Jesus, which passes all understanding. Amen