What would it be like?
News coverage broke into the football game last Saturday night to announce a deal with Iran. John Kerry, our bleary-eyed secretary of state, strode to the podium in Geneva to tell the world about an interim agreement that would, a little bit, perhaps, for 6 months, have some UN inspectors begin to look at Iran’s nuclear sites. They had been haggling into the wee hours for days, laying the groundwork for months, to see if there is some way to bring stability to the region by making sure Iran isn’t able to build a nuclear weapon. It was an exhausting process that involved many people over many years, and it is just a beginning, that could fall apart any minute. But, I wonder, what would it be like if in the middle of those talks a US representative, or better yet someone from Iran, stood up and said, "You know what, I don’t think we need these things anymore. We would like nuclear energy to develop our economy – or, better yet, we would prefer renewable sources. Would you help us harness the water and the wind? If so, we’ll let you shut down all of nuclear reactors, shut them up tight." He shall judge between the nations, Isaiah writes. He shall arbitrate for many peoples. I wonder what would happen if our diplomats decided to do something like that. What would it be like?
Each year the deacons work hard, with multiple proposals in play, to discern the ways we are called to share with our community through the Christmas Eve offering. As you heard a moment ago this year we will give 3 places: to Urban Ministries, the emergency room for our community’s hungry and homeless; to the Durham Crisis Response Center, welcoming victims of domestic violence. We also hope to expand our partnership with our local schools by funding the exciting pilot project between Hope Valley and Forestview Elementary Schools. This Saturday academy that Micah just talked about is a way we can not only support children who need extra help, but their teachers, their parents. There are so many families who don’t have the support we have. But, I wonder, what would it be like if we were all so deeply invested in our schools that the principals at those places had to beat people away, fend off volunteers, tutors, people wanting to make donations. What if folks who had older children, or didn’t have children at all, really got that healthy schools build healthy communities, and that without them working everything else gets harder. "For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." I wonder what might happen if we, if all of us, were invested in that kind of way, for all of Durham’s children. What would it be like?
With the holidays come special time with beloved people. But, with family also comes the – how do you say it – complications that come with family. We all have varying kinds of relationships – folks we feel really close to, folks we don’t know how to handle. We delicately work our way through the passive aggressive in-laws, competitive siblings, those who are filled with anger or resentment. Layer upon that alcohol, the cousin getting divorced, the deep grief over the parent who won’t be around the table – whether for the first year or the 20th. But, I wonder, what would it be like if you decided that this year you weren’t going to participate in the old patterns in your family? What if you offered a little extra grace? The prophet calls us to a new way of engaging conflict: "they shall beat their swords into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." Certainly the prophet speaks of Iran and Syria, Afghanistan, nations across the globe. But he also calls us to a new set of relationships in our homes and neighborhoods. What would it be like if we put the swords away? What would it be like?
I imagine these developments would be first met with cynicism. NO! The voices say. That’s unrealistic. It’s impossible. We can do our little tiny bit, but we can’t expect too much to change. We can’t expect more of people. We certainly can’t do more ourselves. But Isaiah sees something different. He is shown a word from God that comes to life, is en-fleshed, real. In a time filled with conflict, with the northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah, pitted against each other, Isaiah was shown a different word from the Lord. "In days to come," he says. But this is more than a potentiality, it is a reality that, in the latter days, it could be translated, is definitive. It shall come to pass in those days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the holy city, home of the temple, the political and religious heart of the people. It will be the highest of all the mountains, and all nations, ALL shall stream to it, drawn to the home of God. Creation will look to God and God’s people. Come, they will say to each other. Let’s go, let’s head up there together, let’s see what God has for us, so that God might teach us, inspire us, inform our living. The mountain will be a place of teaching and learning of God’s holy law, God’s commandments, God’s way of being, the Word of God made flesh, made real, in the ways we look and listen and tend to our relationships.
The prophet tells us the content of this instruction: peace. Honest reconciliation of differences, nonviolent conflict resolution, the transformation of implements of war to implements of agriculture, so we might tend the land, so that all might be fed. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. But, it is important to note in the text that the swords don’t magically become plowshares, (poof!). There are other visions in scripture that happen all at once, but this is isn’t one of those. This vision is something that is unfolding, that we are drawn into, in which we participate. The people shall beat those swords, crush, hammer them, transforming them from something that wounds to something that feeds.
In early October my wife’s family gathers in northern Virginia, in the small village where her grandmother has lived for 50 years. The village hosts a fair each year, filled with art, craftsmen and women side by side making pottery, painting, building wooden furniture. It is filled with history, and it is great to take the kids to watch, to participate in the old ways that we seem to be losing. We spent over an hour standing in the sun Saturday afternoon watching a blacksmith – the kids were mesmerized – taking that time to transform a rod of iron into a simple bottle opener with a face on top. He spent so much time hammering, making one precise move, cooling, heating, shaping again. Turning it over, side to side, lining it up. Cooling, heating, using small tools to add details, to shape the part that opens a bottle, adding delicate lines in the beard of the face he placed on top. Sweat dripped from his beard, but after a while the face began to take shape. We saw where things would be going.
Good visions are things that express who we are but also pull us towards who we shall be. God’s people are called to participate in this work, in the shaping, of the beating of swords into plowshares in our communities. Here, in advent, as we begin at the ending, looking far past the manger and the shepherds singing on a hillside near Bethlehem. We look past all these things, past our humble efforts here, to the ways Jesus the Christ IS shaping all creation, bending that moral arc of the universe ever more towards justice. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples. Maybe that vision looks like the 140 families you sponsored from social services for Share Your Christmas, families that might not have anything without you. Maybe it is the record generosity I am confident you are going to show in our Christmas eve offering. Maybe it is in the smells of the coffee and buns as they are passed at the Lovefeast tonight, the candles and the music is the season. Maybe our God will lead you into your own kind of ridiculous, once-thought-impossible kind of discipleship in the name of the One who comes. It doesn’t make such sense, these visions. But, again this season, our God calls to us, as we are drawn towards the mountain, the home of God’s justice and mercy, compassion and grace, home for all. What might it be like?
O house of Jacob, beloved brothers and sisters of Westminster, come, especially this season, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
All praise be to God. Amen.