by Rev. Scott Summerville

Luke 1:68-79 – the words of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

When we were kids, my brothers and I would ask my father, “What do you want for Christmas?” He would smile and say, “Nothing!” We were mystified and frustrated. How could you not know what you want for Christmas? And why would you not want to let everybody know, so that they would just maybe get it for you? We would pester him to tell us what he wanted, “Come on daddy, you have to want something!” Eventually to get rid of us he would say something like,“I want a strawberry ice cream cone!”

As a child you long for a thing with your whole heart and soul, dream about it, picture it, and believe that if you had it, everything would be just perfect. Every year, my brothers and I knew exactly what we wanted for Christmas. One year all we could think about was getting new fishing reels. Up to that point we had the kind of fishing reels they call “open face.” You have to flip it open by hand each time you want to cast; you hold the line with one finger and release it as you cast. That seemed old-fashioned – we fantasized about how cool it would be to have the push button kind. We were sure if we had those, we would cast farther and catch bigger fish than ever before. The anticipated pleasure was excruciatingly wonderful.

When we were kids the things we longed for were so simple. The things that made us happy were so simple. As we get older we also begin to long for things that do not fit into boxes and cannot be wrapped with ribbons. Experience teaches us that it is better not to want anything as deeply and desperately as you did in childhood; we learn that the things we desire most we cannot always have and we certainly cannot always keep. So we lower our sites. We learn to hope for less.

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

It is one thing to long for a new fishing reel with all your heart and soul. It is quite another thing to long for peace when we have grown so accustomed to war, violence and conflict. For Christians this is the season of peace. In our songs, our prayers and our pageants we proclaim the Prince of Peace. But as we do so we prepare for the next jolt of terror. We pray every Sunday – “deliver us from evil” – that prayer seems so right for this moment – “deliver us from evil.”

In I have a friend who has an interesting message on her voicemail. It says: “By God’s grace, I am grateful to be alive.” You might not know exactly what to make of that message. But if you knew something of her life story, you would understand its significance. Her family suffered greatly in the civil war in Liberia; many of her close relatives were lost in the horror of it all. She knows directly, personally, intimately the meaning of peace.

We received some very good news this week. It concerns, Carolyn Ross, another survivor of the terrors of that war in Liberia. Most of you know who Carolyn is. She was a refugee from the war in Liberia – one who also lost many family members – who found herself in a Budaburam refugee camp in Ghana, where she encountered the chair of our mission team, Joan Mallory. It is a saga too long even to summarize today, how Carolyn, who suffered from a congenital deformity of the skull, was brought to the United States ten years ago through John Mallory’s tireless efforts, received a series of operations by the best of surgeons to correct her deformity, and has been struggling to make her way in this country as a non-citizen for the past ten years. Last week she got her work papers. As anyone who has been though the immigration maze knows, this is a huge step. To achieve this was the result of a long struggle that would have worn out ten average people. But Joan and Carolyn are not average people.

Our Church Council has approved a plan to raise funds for technical training for Carolyn, now that she is free to earn a living, so that she can make her own way in the world. That will be one of our projects for 2016. One of the things that Joan often remarks about Carolyn is her simple and profound gratefulness for whatever she has, even when she has nothing. Carolyn survived dreadful war, life in a bleak refugee camp, and other profound personal challenges. Out of it all she has achieved a rare thing – inward peace. Her life is a sign of the power of love and faith in the face of the worst life can throw at a person.

Every week in worship we exchange signs of Christ’s peace and speak to one another a word of peace. It is pleasant to exchange the word of peace on a Sunday with the friendly people who smile at us and make Dutch cookies for us, and pray for us when we are hurting. But this simple warm exchange of “peace,” in the name of Christ is a sign of something larger – it is an implied commitment to the hard work of making peace.

Perhaps you are not aware when you are exchanging the peace of
Christ on Sunday morning (along with whatever else some of you are talking about:) ) that you are making a commitment to the hard work of embodying this peace in your life.

We live in a time of hurt and violence, but we are not the first to do so; many have suffered through far worse times than these and endured. When we exchange here the simple word of peace we are making a commitment, insofar as it lies within our power, to be seekers of peace in our homes and families. To be seekers of peace in our church community. To be citizens who will not be swayed by voices of intolerance and prejudice, but who will instead hold fast to the things that make for peace.

There is an ancient tradition in the church, rooted in the gospel teaching of Jesus, that we do not come to the Lord’s table – we do not share in the bread and wine – if we have not taken the steps we need to take to be at peace with our neighbor. In this sense the bread and wine are not free. They come with a great commitment. A commitment to be those who do not simply cry out at the world’s violence and injustice, or complain at the faults of others, but who challenge ourselves to be instruments of reconciliation and peace.

Grace and peace to you.