First UU Church of Berks
December 24, 2011
Rev. Sandra Fees
Reading: The Work of Christmas by Howard Thurman
When the song of angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers [and sisters],
to make music in the heart.
Christmas Eve Homily
On Thursday, December 15, the flag used by United States forces in Iraq was lowered and folded up in a subdued ceremony in Baghdad. On Tuesday, December 20, President Obama received the flag. The nine-year war is over. But no one is declaring peace. Peace requires more than the absence of war or violence. In this season, we sing of peace on earth and goodwill to all. We celebrate Jesus as the “prince of peace.” But what kind of peace did he bring? What kind of peace is it we are yet awaiting?
At the time of Jesus’ birth, the people had been awaiting a Messiah. After the death of King David nearly a millennium before Jesus’ birth, the nation of Israel was struggling economically, militarily, politically, and religiously. They began to develop an expectation that a new leader would emerge to restore them to their former glory. In Isaiah 9:6 the arrival of this much awaited leader is prophesied: “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named wonderful counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace.”
Then Jesus came along. In Luke’s story, the angel said, “to you is born … a savior, who is the Messiah…. You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” It seemed the much-awaited Messiah had arrived. According to Luke, the heavenly host said: “Glory to God and on earth peace, goodwill to all,” heralding a new dawning of peace. But the Roman Empire understood peace as an outcome of military might. The titles Luke used to describe Jesus, “Savior” and “Messiah,” were titles reserved for the Roman Emperor. To describe the child this way was treasonous. It suggested he was a military commander who would organize an army and achieve victory through the sword. Jesus didn’t turn out to be this kind of Messiah. He wasn’t what the people expected in a leader. He had a different idea about peace on earth.
Jesus taught that the way to create peace is by doing what is just, by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. He encouraged people to love their enemies and to follow the Golden Rule. He preached and practiced nonviolence. His message spoke of forgiveness. He hung out with poor people, widows, beggars, and thieves. His way of creating peace was rooted in the ordinary activities of everyday life – trying to understand other people, share meals with them, and have relationships guided by compassion.
Today this kind of peace is being called “positive peace.” It reflects a paradigm shift in our global thinking, offering a broader definition that has to do not only with demilitarization. It also has to do with the many other elements required for a just and stable society, things like public health, political advocacy, fair wages, sustainable practices, and religious tolerance.
Dena Merriam, the founder and convener of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, describes this approach to peace. She says,
By peace, we really mean that we are looking at consciousness change and at underlying values. Thus we are looking at peace in its broadest definition: the development of sustainable, inclusive, balanced societies that are truly prototypes of more peaceful, harmonious ways of living. (“A Discussion with Dena Merriam, Global Peace Initiative of Women,” http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/interviews/a-discussion-with-dena-merriam-global-peace-initiative-of-women).
The paradigm shift can be seen in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners. Three women split the prize. They are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president; Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized women to bring an end to Liberia’s long war and to ensure women’s participation in elections; and Tawakkul Karman, a leader in the struggle for women’s rights, democracy, and peace in Yemen. ("The Nobel Peace Prize 2011". Nobelprize.org, Dec. 2011, nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2011/)
Building peace is a continuous long-term struggle and process. These three women know that. Our nations and communities and families must learn it too. Christmas restores our hope for such a peace, not a utopian peace on earth, but a realistic one that is built and rebuilt and built again. The birth of the child, of every child in every age, gives us courage to begin again. It gives us courage to create peace in our homes, our families, our neighborhoods, and in our own hearts.
So it is we now begin what theologian Howard Thurman calls “the work of Christmas.” May we heal the broken. May we rebuild the nations. May we bring peace among people, and make music in the heart. May we be filled with the hope and courage of the Christmas season.