This message was offered at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, December 6, 2015.
Reading: Romans 12:9-18
The noise was deafening. The blast of gunshots. The piercing shriek of a fire alarm, and the torrent of water gushing from the sprinkler system, mixing with the blood on the floor. But what the people who were there remember most — the county workers hiding behind a coffee cart, the police officers who arrived four minutes after the first 911 calls — were the heart-wrenching screams and moans, the chaos and sense of utter panic as people lay dying on the floor and the attackers, wearing masks and dressed in black, held guns at waist level, shooting methodically at anyone who still seemed to be alive.
“Everyone started running,” said Christian Nwadike, 62, a health inspector who hid in a bathroom as the building shook with each rifle shot. “Many made it, many did not.”
This gathering on a bright, warm, Southern California morning on Wednesday was supposed to be a mix of business — admittedly dreary training sessions for workers from the San Bernardino Health Department — and an early holiday celebration. The first-floor auditorium at the Inland Regional Center was decorated for Christmas, and many of the 100 people gathered in the conference center took a moment to pose with colleagues for photographs in front of a Christmas tree.
But that ended when a colleague, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, who had been there that morning and had quietly slipped away, leaving his jacket draped over a chair, returned with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, to unleash what the F.B.I. is calling a terrorist attack. It played out in the unlikeliest of places: a center that helps disabled people in a sprawling suburb an hour outside of Los Angeles. The health department, where Mr. Farook was an inspector, was holding its event at the center.
The attack Wednesday in San Bernardino, California, left 14 people dead and 21 injured. It was the second mass shooting in the United States that day, the first occurred around 1:30am that morning in Savannah Georgia where three people were injured and one died. These attacks happening just days after the shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. As of Wednesday, December 2, the 336th day of the year, there had been 355 mass shootings in the United States—defined as shootings involving 4 or more victims (wounded or dead), including the shooter (a helpful distinction I think from mass-murder which might be defined as 4 or more people dead). These 355 acts of terror have killed 462 people and left 1,314 people injured in 47 separate states (including Connecticut)
My heart breaks; and, I can’t help but ask how long, Lord? how long?
In 1863, Henry Wadworth Longfellow’s son had just returned home, severely injured from fighting in the Civil War. Overcome with grief and despair on Christmas day, he sat down to write a poem that would help rekindle the joy of Christmas he felt he had lost. In light of the events of the last week and month, I resonate deeply with the third stanza:
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.
At this point, peace on earth seems like a fantasy that could never come true. Let’s be honest, peace on earth and good will toward all seems pretty far off. And yet… And, yet, we light a candle for peace anyway, “one bright candle for peace” that shines brightly in a dark and violent world; a candle that defiantly breaks the darkness darkness of our despair reminding us, giving us hope that peace will surely come.
The problem, I think, is that we strive to make peace in all the wrong ways. The strongest militaries in the world, the best trained police forces, and the strictest gun laws will not bring about lasting peace. Peace is not something we can enact through a treaty. It will not come through the legislative action of congress or by an executive order of the president. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad or unnecessary. But the reality is that an abiding and eternal peace cannot be forced upon people. True, everlasting peace cannot be enforced by a government. Peace will become a reality when hearts and lives are changed (and that’s Godly work that can only be done by the Holy Spirit, not by terrorists or militarists or gun-toting evangelicals).
In less than three weeks we will recount the story of Jesus’ birth, a night where we remember the heavens opening up and angels appearing to shepherds on a Galilean countryside saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward [all]” (Luke 2:14, New King James Version). We will hear the words of the prophet Isaiah (9:6-7c, Common English Bible),
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
7 There will be vast authority and endless peace
for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it
with justice and righteousness
now and forever.
And we will be reminded that The Way to lasting and eternal peace has been revealed to us; that Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, has come to establish his reign on this earth. That reign of peace starts in the hearts and lives of all those who accept Christ’s Way—in all of those who willingly receive God’s love and seek to share it with others. Peace—on a global scale—begins with us and is manifested, given flesh and made real in the way in which we respond to violence, hate, division and darkness; therefore, “let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up” (Romans 14:19, Common English Bible).
9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.
18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.
Dear friends, as we prepare for Christmas, let us not forget that in a world filled with darkness, terror, violence, and division, light is dawning, peace is coming in and through the babe found in a manger.
Longfellow found the joy and hope he was looking for as he sat down to pen the poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In the last two verses, after hanging his head in despair, he writes:
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.”
Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant subline,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Dear friends, if you despair the violence, terror, division and darkness in our world, Hear the good news. Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace and through him peace will come. This Christmas, open your heart to Christ. Let the reign of Christ’s love take hold of your life and peace will come for you and all the world. Amen.
 “Witnesses Recall Day of Terror in San Bernardino” by Adam Nagourney, Jennifer Medina, and Julie Turkewitz at MSN.com <http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/witnesses-recall-day-of-terror-in-san-bernardino/ar-AAg3REn?ocid=spartandhp> Accessed December 5, 2015.
 “Several injured, 1 dead in overnight Savannah shooting,” WSAV.com < http://wsav.com/2015/12/02/several-injured-1-dead-in-overnight-savannah-shooting/> Accessed December 5, 2015.
 See “Gunman kills officer, two others at Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado” by Sandhya Somashekhar, Lindsey Bever, and Jerry Markon, WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/2015/11/27/ff579e40-9543-11e5-b5e4-279b4501e8a6_story.html> Accessed December 5, 2015.
 “The San Bernardino shooting is the second mass shooting today and the 355th this year” by Christopher Ingraham, WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/02/the-san-bernardino-mass-shooting-is-the-second-today-and-the-355th-this-year/> Accessed December 5, 2015.
 “A Tally of Mass Shootings in the U.S.” by Greg Myre, NPR.org < http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/12/03/458321777/a-tally-of-mass-shootings-in-the-u-s> Accessed December 5, 2015.
 “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Text by Henry W. Longfellow, Tune by John Calkin, Hymnary.org < http://www.hymnary.org/text/i_heard_the_bells_on_christmas_day> Accessed December 5, 2015.
 Romans 12:9-18, Common English Bible.