Peace in an Ugly Time

Christmas Eve                    December 24, 2016

And so we gather once more in this comfortable place on this most comfortable night of the year. We sing the familiar carols, which we have known since childhood. We gather before the baby in the stable, that place of safety, warmth, and love, and we bask once more in the glow of that old story, that God in love and humility came down to earth, and try once more to imagine it is true.

As I said in my Advent letter – and most of what I have to say this evening you have read there, but I feel it is what I have to preach this evening – if you need to retreat into that snug Christmas cocoon, then by all means. We all need that from time to time, for our mental health. 2016 has been, by all accounts, a rough year. Terrorism, a never-ending refugee crisis, the horror of the destruction of Aleppo, economic hardship, and the failure of democracy in our neighbour to the south. And closer to home – illness, loss, and family stress. Of course we need and deserve a bit of Christmas comfort!

But  the Christmas story was not all that safe and cozy, either. The stable was no doubt cold and dirty and uncomfortable – as much as we have romanticised it, it was full of the degradation and danger of extreme poverty. And those peaceful hills around Bethlehem would soon echo with the anguished cries of parents whose children were murdered by King Herod, while the Holy Family fled as refugees in fear of their lives. So let us keep in mind that the Christmas story offers us not only cozy comfort, but is also a story that confronts the ugly realities of our world, and claims to transform them.

I am one who has been pessimistic about the events of this year. It seems to me that we are in an uglier and more dangerous place as a society than we have been for some time. Perhaps it is my theological education in Germany, in a church that is very attuned to the failure of their society in the 30s and 40s, to the small role the churches played in resisting that failure, and the many ways in which the churches fell short. Perhaps it is because I have always believed, and have come to believe more strongly over the years, in the power of words – that words matter, much more than we often suppose.

That’s what scares me about the time we live in. Not so much who’s going to be President of the US, although that scares me too, but the damage that has already been done to our civic discourse, to the way we talk to each other. Suddenly a whole new approach has come out on top, and it appears to be catching on: boastfulness, a complete lack of concern for the truth, disrespect for others, open contempt for the weak, and hatred of anyone who is different. We see these values in power to the south, but even worse, we see them spreading throughout society, and even crossing the border. We hear of racist attacks in Canada, of Muslim women harassed in Toronto, of swastikas painted on synagogues in Ottawa. It is poisoning the way in which we treat one another.

What I am afraid of is the continued unravelling of our common civic life, which is based on being answerable to facts, and to one another. This may seem alarmist; we are a long way, we might say, from where these bad things are happening. But we are part of the same social fabric – and you all know what happens when a sweater starts to unravel. You have to catch it early, or the whole thing will come apart.

If the power of words to hurt and destroy is what scares me, it is also the power of words that gives me hope. The stories we tell and listen to, the images and visions that spark our imaginations, the explanations that help us to understand the complexity of things, the simple courtesy of giving and receiving kindness from one another, and from a stranger: these are the things that continue to knit together our social life. They are still, thank God, the norm in how we treat each other – but we must be on guard to keep it that way, and to confront bullying and intolerance and hatred whenever we see it.

And this brings me back to the Christmas story. Because I believe that we have in the traditions of our faith the very resources our society needs to confront this poison. Why do I say that? Simply because the demon that Mr. Trump and his followers have fanned into flame is so very exactly the opposite of everything Jesus taught and embodied. It is, I suppose, the Anti-Christ – not in any woo-hoo superstitious sense, but quite soberly it is the opposite of who Jesus was, and who we are called to be. And so Jesus, and our calling as Christians, may be the precise antidote to what ails us.

I should hasten to add that I do not claim this for Christians alone. Jews, Muslims, Buddhist and Baha’i, any of the great faith traditions of the world teach these values. We have seen beautiful examples of Muslims forgiving their attackers, because that is what the Koran has taught them. And many people of no faith, but of integrity and compassion, are also our allies in this fight. But what I can speak to directly, tonight, is the particular thing that we Christians have to offer that mix: the countercultural and creative story of Jesus, the story whose beginning we celebrate this night.

And so, when we look to the stable, we see a God who favours the poorest of the poor, who came to be with them in loving solidarity, rather than lording it over them with boastfulness.
– we see the promised Prince of Peace, who came not in power and might, but in the vulnerability of a baby
– we see the poor shepherds, not degraded as losers, but honoured and exalted by God
– we see the wise men come from afar, heralds of a salvation that includes all nations, peoples, and religions
– we see the son of God himself a refugee

The chords struck this night would be lived out in Jesus’s life:
He showed an infinite compassion and respect for others; a humility that puts the needs of others first. He reached out to the marginalized and despised with a gospel that put them first in the kingdom. He denounced those who seek power and wealth at the expense of others as leading empty lives. He lived a commitment to truth. He honoured the earth as God’s creation. He taught and practised forgiveness instead of revenge. He saw so clearly how violence only begets more violence, and taught us to seek peace through non-violence. He remained true to that vision even to the death.

The values that Jesus taught and embodied have been often forgotten or suppressed, even within the church itself. But as long as we have continued to share these stories, they have not disappeared altogether. Often we have dismissed his teaching as unrealistic and idealistic. But at a time like this, as we watch an experiment in running a society on the exact opposite of everything Jesus stood for, it is easier to recognize that his teaching is the only hope for the world.

We are called to work on what the rabbis called tikkun olam, the mending of the world. Now that sounds like a huge and impossible job for us. We cannot save the world. We cannot stop wars in distant lands, or prevent foreign leaders from doing incredibly stupid things. We don’t have to. As a verse attributed to the rabbis reminds us:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. In this way we will have an effect locally, in the society around us, in the people who touch our lives Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now.. We can simply live out the values that Jesus taught us, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness, respect for the marginalized. We can be vigilant for words that put down others, that foster hatred and rage, that tear the fabric of our social net. And we can work to stitch it up again, to choose words that will challenge and confront the bullies, comfort and support the disadvantaged, welcome and learn from the stranger, and in all things, bear witness to that hope for the world that was born that night in the stable. He has never been more relevant and necessary than today.