Peace Could Not Be Tamed
Psalm 122; Isaiah 2:1–5, Mt 24:36–44
We’ve entered the Season of Advent. As we were reminded though the liturgy surrounding the lighting of our Advent wreath, Advent means coming. We wait with eager anticipation on the coming of our Lord who comes again and again to bring justice for the world. We wait with eager anticipation of the coming of our Lord who ultimately comes again in final judgment to claim the righteous and the lost. We are “at the brink,” they say, “of something utterly new, long yearned for, but beyond our capacity to enact.” We are hoping – yearning – for the light of the Lord to descend upon the earth and usher in what we so need today. Today, we are so in need of peace.
Crises in the Far East and Syria and Mali and the Sudan weigh heavily upon our hearts. Who truly knows what’s going on with nuclear armament in the Middle East? Our own troops are ready for combat in countries far from home, and nearly every week we learn of another American man or woman killed. Not to mention the confrontations of economic violence pummeling our own people, just as it has been in parts of Europe. There are reports of new threats of oppression against protestors in Egypt and unspeakable action against immigrants in Saudi Arabia – not to mention on our own land. Today, as it’s been for thousands of years, yes, we are in need of peace.
As you likely recall, over the course of several weeks in September and October, two groups within Western met to discern what peace means to us as a body of Christians at Western Presbyterian Church. We used as our starting point the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Peace Discernment Process that was launched after the 2012 General Assembly. Among those gathered here twice each week were men and women with deep expertise and wide ranging opinions on the multiplicity of issues beneath the banner of peace: policy makers, defense analysts, former military officers, diplomats, educators, a political scientist, an ethicist, a conflict mediator, several theologians and as important as anyone there, people who simply long for peace.
At the onset of our Discernment, the Sunday morning group debated the curriculum’s thesis that a lack of peace (in whatever context) is a result of economic disparity. Many immediately began to wrestle with the premise of nonviolence as a core value in moving toward peace. In the midst of so many surprisingly differing points of view, we acknowledged the complexities of all that falls beneath the heading of war – that troops make peace possible; and that warships make globalization possible. We acknowledged that war, itself, in the law of unintended consequences, stimulates economic growth. War is profitable! And that was all in the first session.
Not surprisingly, the conversations spanned topics well beyond the prescribed topics for each day to suggest that we need to account for the intricacies of war in any honest discernment of the subject of peace.
The Tuesday group, having the benefit of knowing how the Sunday group’s conversation went, began with a more basic discussion of peace. What is peace, exactly? Peace in our hearts? Peace as the absence of war? Peace as the absence of violence? (We noticed how “peace” seems to be viewed more as a rejection of something else rather than a good in itself.) We talked about Vietnam and Turkey, the Road to Jerusalem and the streets of some of our own distressed cities.
Peace as a topic: we tried to rein it in. What is the role of conflict in defining shared goals? How is “difference” a key starting point for any movement toward peace? We agreed that peace of any definition requires action, and not acceptance. We agreed that peace is where there is hope.
We attempted to follow an agenda in our discernment but it is unruly, this thing called peace. It pits policy makers against diplomats who ultimately shake hands over unsustainable agreements that drive common folks with uncommon vantage points to nothing peaceable at all.
It’s not too unlike our passage from Matthew, the complexity of it all. The examples of Noah, the men in the field and the women grinding grain, where some are swept away, some are taken and others are left behind, can be read as contradictions. We aren’t sure which seems right from the reading, but we do know that we want to be on the right side of Christ. In the same way, the path that Jesus has in mind is unclear, while the destination is certain. What is important for us to know in this multifaceted season of preparation of the coming of our Lord, is that any of our steps toward peace bring us ultimately closer to God with us – Immanuel.
From our Psalter reading this morning, we learn that true peace is a peace of prosperity. Prosperity in this case is not of the stuff that we might hear from a bad Sunday morning televangelist. This is important to clarify. In the Hebrew text of Psalm 122, the prosperity of the psalmist is of the peace of shalom. Interestingly, in verse 6, “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security in your towers” (and forward), the family of the two words “peace” and “prosperity” is the same. Prosperity and peace – shaleh and shalom – are from their core meanings, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable. True prosperity is completeness, soundness, tranquility and ease. It’s unburdened of the stuff of cash exchange. True prosperity is in the peace that is of God.
The word of peace came to the prophet Isaiah and this is what he saw: Isaiah envisioned peace as a state of mutuality. – A peaceful economy, really, where weapons are retooled to become instruments of nurture. -A vision of transformation in which all join forces to ameliorate disparities within small communities and between entire nations that pit one against another to affect a mighty tumultuous world. It was a multi-sensory vision through which words were seen – and steps are still taken – to close disparities of income and education, of quantities of food supplies and medical supplies; of access to clean drinking water and clean places to put one’s head. It is a vision re-formed world where disparities of race and class and just plain luck are erased. It is a new day when children aren’t driven from playgrounds into minefields because they have no choice. War will be no more.
Isaiah’s vision was not a vision born of good intentions. His vision was a tangible, palpable, even-if-seemingly-elusive-proposition, through which (disparities that deny prosperity and refuse justice) are transformed by the enacted word of peace – honest conversations in a place such as this where great intellects understand the importance of action on the heels of discourse so that abundant resources will be brought together – piled in a great big heap and shared – redistributed justly in order that God’s peace – God’s prosperous kingdom – will be realized.
Barrie Shepherd, pastor emeritus of First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, a poet of sacred profundity, reflected upon Isaiah’s vision:
Swords into plowshares… The Rev. Dr. Barrie Shepherd
People who talk about peace, Father,
also tend to talk a great deal about love.
It often seems as if the only solution
they have to offer to the complex problems
of global tensions, ancient rivalries,
the savage competition for dwindling resources,
and indiscriminate, endemic, cruel warfare
is the simplistic belief that if only
everybody would just love everybody,
these age-old riddles would be solved.
Isaiah, at least, is much more realistic.
His portrayal of future shalom,
with those blacksmiths in their smithies
hammering old swords and spears into plowshares,
reshaping on their anvils the instruments of death
into the nurturers of life,
is such a powerful one that people
claim it, sing it, pray it to this day.
Yet the foundations of this revered scene
are laid, not in any vast emotional outpouring of love,
but in law; in fundamental law and justice.
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples.
Forgive me, Lord, when I claim
to be building peace and all I am doing
is mouthing empty clichés and singing childish songs.
Show me again the role of submission,
willing obedience to your holy law,
of ruthless honesty before its clear demands,
of self-subordination to the higher claim of justice.
Teach me how I can begin at home,
at work, to forge a lawful, just society,
one where no child of yours need starve
or lack for shelter, family, basic health care, education.
Make me a peacemaker in truth,
that I might be made ready for the advent of the Prince of Peace.
Let us to take a moment – an Advent moment – to see what comes to mind beneath your banner of peace. If you’ll close your eyes – really, simply close your eyes for 5 seconds in the safety of this space – what vision does God give you today of peace? When the word of the Lord comes to us as a vision for peace, how is God helping you to envision your role in this work of peace today?
We have learned as a body of Christians that it is unruly, this thing called peace. Through many conversations, we learned that peace could not be tamed. The good news is that our Lord never stops encouraging us to enact visions for peace in the many forms of peace that are required for the world to ultimately experience the prosperous peace of God which will come again.
In the advent of our Lord, let us prepare ourselves for the coming again of our Lord by striving for the stuff of peace. Let us reimagine peace not as an abstract claim or an untamable truth, but as a new way of prophetic living that begins with each one of us here giving enacted witness to the world’s insatiable thirst for peace. As we listen for, watch for, anticipate our Prince of Peace who comes again and again to mobilize us toward this new prosperity – a new economy – a new world order – let us become emboldened to make peace visible by becoming individual and collective instruments of development and healing and bright promise for a future filled with peace for all the world.
O Come, O Come, Immanuel!
 Brueggeman, Walter, “First Sunday of Advent” found in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year A. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) p 1.