Summary: Peace comes hard for some at Christmas. We must be open to what God wants to give, we must get down to what God wants us to be doing, and we must find meaning in our ordinary pursuits.
National Baptist Memorial Church, Washington, DC, Dec. 19, 2004
These are stressful days. There is too much going on. Too much work, too much to think about, too many demands. Stressful. We’d really like some peace, wouldn’t we? Just a moment or two of quiet – wouldn’t that be great? But there is too much going on for that. Too much in the world, too much in Iraq, too much in Ukraine, too much crime, too much in Adams Morgan, too much at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue! I remember that Dr. Grizzard used to say that this church was located between the zoo and the White House, and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference! Too much.
Too much traveling. I heard an astonishing statistic. I heard that 61 million Americans will be in the air, on the rails, or on the highways, traveling for Christmas. Hey, if there are that many going to see other folks, will the other folks be there when they arrive? Too much traveling, too much stress, too much. Gifts to buy, cards to write, trees to trim, mince pies to make – or in my case, to taste. Lots to do. What we wouldn’t give at our house for a day or two of peace!
Oh, wait, you say. I thought you were retired, or semi-retired. How can you have too much to do? It is true that I won’t have pastoral work to do this year. People at Takoma Park had a terrible habit of dying at Christmas time; I always had to work in a funeral or two along with Christmas Eve and everything else. I don’t have that this year, but I tell you, between medical visits and grandchildren and grading final exams for my seminary students and getting ready for a new job, I think I am as stressed out as I have ever been at Christmas. Peace! Where do I go for that precious commodity?
But now on top of all of that – on top of the hurry and scurry, the too much to do and too little money to pay for it – on top of all of that, there is something else that stresses us. It’s not just the hurry and the rush that get to us at Christmas. This season brings back hurts and pains we thought we had left behind. This season opens up old wounds, and the losses and defeats of the past crowd into our memories. It’s not easy to feel peace when you remember what you have lost or think about the mistakes you cannot correct. Old wounds stress us and steal our peace.
Not long ago someone connected to our family – a young man, only sixteen years old, took his own life. No one knows why, but we do know lots of folks hurt because of this, and among them our niece and nephew, the cousins of this young man. So our son, Bryan, who is also their cousin, but on their father’s side, and who never even knew the young man in question – our son decided that he would go and invest some time with those two teenagers. When he told us why he wanted to do that, it came as a revelation to us. Bryan said, “You know, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve enjoyed Christmas again. Grandpa Rust died at Christmas in 1991, and Grandma Smith died at Christmas in 1992, and for several years I just dreaded Christmas.” I say that came as a revelation, because it wasn’t obvious to us that he was feeling that, but he was. It took him quite a while to get past those wounds. It’s not easy to feel peace at this time of the year when you remember what you have lost or think about those mistakes you cannot correct.
The words of the poet Longfellow ring sadly true for us, “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘for hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’”
And yet deep down in my soul I believe that God is working to give us the gift of peace. God is not idle; God is not indifferent. That is at the very heart of the message of Christmas. Our God is working to give us the gift of peace. The question is, “How shall we receive it?” The issue is how we shall find this peace, the gift of God’s love?
You remember the phrase children use to start their games, the little formula, “Ready, set, go”? You’re about to run a race, and everybody knows what to do: ready – get rid of everything that’s in your way. Set – get your body positioned to run. And then go – go run that race with all your might. Ready, set, go. That’s what we have to do to receive peace. The simplest, the most childlike, of all the characters in the Christmas story show us that – the shepherds who heard the angel’s song. The shepherds were the first to witness God’s gift and to receive His peace. The shepherds will show us what it takes to find peace and to get past those hurts hovering in the heart: ready, set, go.