A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 8, 2013
Psalm 34:11-14; Luke 1:67-79 NRSV
It was Christmas Day. The Harvard professor’s sense of despair could not have been greater. The country was in the midst of a violent, bloody war that had not only torn apart the nation, but many families as well. Two and half years earlier, his wife—the great love of his life—had suffered a tragic death. Her dress had caught fire. Seeking to spare the children, she had run into his study. He tried in vain with a small throw rug to extinguish the flames that were consuming his wife. When those attempts failed, he threw his own body onto his her, severely burning his face, arms and hands. But his beloved wife Fanny died the next morning anyway. His own injuries and grief were so great that he was unable to attend her funeral. He was heartbroken; and he never fully recovered. In his personal journal the first Christmas following his wife’s death, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.” A later journal entry, on the anniversary of Fanny’s death, recorded, “Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” A following Christmas day was totally void of a journal entry.
Now, several months later, and just one month before Christmas day, he had just learned that his eldest son, Charles, who had enlisted in the Army without his blessing, had been severely wounded and crippled. He did not know whether his son would live or die. So on Christmas Day, as war cannons were still blasting across the land, the Harvard poet was in the deepest depths of despair.
In contrast to the cannons’ blasts, he heard nearby church bells began to peal. He picked up a pen and began to put the feelings of despair deep in his soul on paper. He began to write:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
I thought how, as the day had come, The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
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, goodwill to men.”
But then as the poet put his feelings to paper, the experience seems to have been cathartic for him. For midway in the poem, there is a shift from despair to hope:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead: nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men.”
The poem, given the title “Christmas Bells,” was first published in February 1865 in Our Young Folks, a journal for children. In 1872, the poem was set to music by English organist, John Baptiste Calkin, transforming it into the beloved hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” And that is the tune we sang it to today.
It is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s phrase, “Of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” that I want to focus on for a moment, complementing our Advent Candle of Peace. Of all the Advent and Christmas themes, “peace on earth” is one of the most prevalent. But is “peace on earth” a fantasy, a pipe dream, a warm and fuzzy feeling we get every December, but just that—a dream? Or is greater peace in our families, our community, and our wider world really possible, if we are willing to work for it? And if so, what are the practical steps all of us can take to make for greater peace in our lives?
As I have reflected upon it, it seems to me that working for peace means being willing to step out of our comfort zones to go the extra mile. Discord, alienation, estrangement, lack of a peaceful situation—these things are hard. Very few of us enjoy dealing with conflict. As a minister, I have seen my share of conflict in churches over the years, and I have done my share of mediating and putting out fires in church communities, and helping people deal with conflict in their personal lives. I have seen people’s reluctance to confront conflict and the impact this reluctance can have. But every now and then, all of us are presented with situations that involve conflict. And although wading into conflict is not comfortable, we need to do it in order to help bring about reconciliation and a sense of peace. Sometimes we just need to bite the bullet and step out of our comfort zone and do it.
Working for peace means being willing to take the first step. Often when we feel estranged or alienated from someone or some group of people, the easiest thing to do is try to ignore or avoid the situation. Or draw inward. But Christian peacemaking, at least as Jesus talks about it in the Sermon on the Mount, means taking that first step toward reconciliation, even if we feel we are in the right and have been wronged. If your brother or sister offends you, Jesus counseled, go to your brother or sister and seek to be reconciled. It could mean picking up the telephone and making a call. Or writing a note or a letter asking that old grudges be forgotten and asking for the opportunity to start afresh. “If we have no peace,” Mother Teresa said, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
Working for peace means loving each other in spite of our differences. Too often differences—especially religious differences—can lead to fear, distrust, or arrogance. We tend to fear what we are not familiar with. We tend to think that the way we have been brought up religiously is the only right way there is. So we tend to put labels on people who may be different from a cultural or religious standpoint. Labels have the potential of galvanizing us into homogeneous groups that are suspicious of those who are not like us. But working for peace means having the ability to look beyond differences and labels and getting to know others. When we get to know those who are different, especially on an individual level, we may find that we can really love them for who they are.
Sometime back, I read a story about some Jews and Christians who found a way to help one another during the holidays. The Jews volunteered to fill in for Christians in their jobs or places where they volunteered (like homeless shelters) on Christmas and Easter so the Christians could attend their religious services and be with their families. And in return, the Christians volunteered to fill in for the Jews in their jobs or places where they volunteered so they could attend their religious services and be with their families on Jewish holy days. When I read that, I thought to myself, What a wonderful, practical way to work for world peace! In the words of Carlos Santana, “The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart. The most powerful weapon you can be is an instrument of peace.”
Another poem about peace turned into a song, written in the midst of another war, became a hit for John Lennon. Lennon sang:
“Imagine all the people living life in peace.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”
Advent gives us the opportunity to not only do a little bit of dreaming about greater peace in the world. But it also prods us to take practical steps—stepping out of our comfort zone, taking the first step, and learning to love in spite of our differences—to make peace a reality. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” Or in the words of the Psalm that I read: we must seek peace, but also pursue it (Psalm 34:14).
May such be our aim during this Advent-Christmas season—to dream a little, but also to work a little, for greater peace on earth, goodwill toward man.” Amen.