What Can’t Wait (II): Peace
by Louise Westfall
I experienced “waiting” up close and personal when called for jury duty last week. You know how it goes: hundreds of people are summoned to a large hall in the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse at 8am. You’re welcomed warmly and then shown a video that explains the jury selection process, but even more, highlights the importance of this work to democracy and justice for all (which pretty much obliterated any sense of “why me?” or “I’m too busy for this”). Then—all pumped up with righteous purpose–you wait. And wait. After a while, someone comes in and calls out potential juror numbers, and that group leaves. Nope, not me. More waiting. Another cup of coffee; time to read the entire Denver Post and NY Times. Finally, the clerk strides back in and announces that no more juries are needed that day, and we are free to go.
The church’s season of Advent is a time of waiting. We mark the four weeks in anticipation of God’s greatest gift of love in Jesus the Light of the World no darkness can overcome. But in a NY Times article I had time to read while waiting, a priest in the Anglican Church laid bare its meaning in a new way. In contrast to the giddy “night before Christmas” anticipation (and certainly my courtroom impatience), she describes Advent waiting as an intentional and honest look into the darkness.
…[it is] to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, and suffering…Advent holds space for our grief, and reminds us that all of us are not only wounded by the evil in the world, but also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness. [Tish Harrison Warren, in the NY Times, December 1, 2019]
At first reading, today’s Scripture text may seem to contradict this perspective, with its picture of “the peaceable kingdom” in which wolves and lambs live together, vulnerable children dwell in safety, the poor rise as justice is done and all creation flourishes under God’s righteous rule. But let’s be clear about the context for this beautiful image: it was written during a time when God’s chosen people faced destruction at the hands of Assyrian conquerors. The nation had turned away from God and put their trust in military and political alliances. Its leaders became idolatrous and corrupt. From out of this doom and gloom, the prophet held high a vision of God’s gracious intent for the whole world to inspire them to change their ways; to be guided through the darkness of their present lives by the stunning light of God’s eternal realm. A reading from the prophet Isaiah, in the eleventh chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me and everyone who yearns for peace yet doubts it can actually happen. [Isaiah 11:1-10]
Look closely at the image on your bulletin cover. It’s a picture painted by nineteenth century artist Edward Hicks entitled The Peaceable Kingdom. The scene is dominated by the animals and children in the foreground, at rest and enjoying each other’s company. And in the background there is a much smaller depiction of Native peoples and Quakers in earnest conversation, presumably peace talks (though we 21st century viewers should question this presumption, in light of what we know now about the distortions of colonialism). Hicks painted over 60 versions of this piece, a powerful illustration of this text: that God’s promised day of peace yet ahead sheds light on our lives and world now. [informed by commentary by Dave Davis in Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year A, volume 1, p 20]
We’re not bystanders. We’re not spectators. We are the beloved community called to do stuff that will realize God’s intention.
It offers us a road map and a plan of action. The prophets of God call God’s people to engage in the work of God’s peaceable kingdom. To take responsibility for the ways we wield wrong, and make changes that will lead towards that glorious day. To do justice, and provide real opportunities to the forgotten and vulnerable ones. To ground our decisions in the spirit of God. To walk gently on the earth so that no one is hurt or destroyed.
…or perhaps, more concretely, to act like Mister Rogers. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood provides an intimate look at the Christian faith that moved him to care deeply for others, especially children who were often ignored or dismissed or simply “entertained.” In one scene he’s shown praying at bed time, with a small notebook from which he is reading individual names. His sensitivity towards a cynical journalist assigned to interview him helps uncover and heal the profound psychic hurt the journalist carries. It’s a terrific film for many reasons and maybe the thing that left the greatest impression on me was the way his wife Joanne spoke of him. He’s not a saint, she insisted; he had to work hard at managing his anger, for example. He got impatient at times. But the difference was that he cultivated qualities of kindness and compassion. He followed rituals and exercises that helped him become the person he wanted to be. [some of this information was gleaned from reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and the Presbyterian Outlook] He practiced and practiced and practiced. And we look to him now, not just as the Presbyterian minister he was, or the children’s television icon, but as a singular example of peacemaker, reconciler, healer.
For such a time as this. Because, friends, peace cannot wait.
A college classmate and dear friend posted this on Facebook this week: My daughter-in-law teaches at Saugus High School (in California) where three students died in a mass shooting on November 14. Today is the first day of classes since that unimaginable event. I am sad about so many things: those parents who will not drop their three dear children of at school today or ever again; those teachers and administrators who must try to create a sense of normalcy and security in a place where there is none; those students who got to school and look every day for the safe exits. I am angry about so many things: that this horrific event has become so common that it was third page news the next day; that this horrific event has become so common that there are trained experts immediately available to provide services; that our culture is so willing to say “nothing will ever change.” Yet somehow, she was able to add a final sentence: I cling to the promise of swords into plowshares… [Facebook post by Phyllis Tucker, December 4, 2019]
Here in the northern hemisphere, the season of Advent means shorter days as we descend deeper into shadows. But, friends, we can never again look at even the most horrific darkness the same way. God’s intention for this world is peace, a day when no one will hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain. We’re not bystanders. We’re not spectators. We are the beloved community called to do stuff that will realize God’s intention. Big stuff like eradicating poverty and ending homelessness; supporting national and global earth care initiatives; using the power of purse and voting booth to promote the common good; little stuff like being the first to reach out to someone with whom you’ve had a disagreement; refusing to repost internet snark; speaking kindly to people who serve you; kneeling down to listen as a child speaks, instead of talking over them. Advent waiting immerses us in a promise that will change us, change our perception of reality, change our hearts and minds, change what we do and how we do it.
My waiting day last Tuesday held an unanticipated surprise. As I was settling in, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned around to discover Claire Wineman, a Central member and college junior, who had also been called for jury duty. We chatted about many things, and at some point the conversation turned to her future plans. I think I’d like to buy a farm [she said] and engage in sustainable agriculture. Produce good, slow food that will feed hungry people and nourish a healthy planet.
As we walked out of the courtroom, the cold and cloudy day suddenly seemed brighter, illumined by divine light reflected in a human young woman. Thanks be to God.
Charge and Benediction
“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.” ―Fred Rogers