Isaiah 2: 1-5
Welcome to the season that begins once the tables are cleared from Thanksgiving. Welcome to the season that begins as the celebration of imagining new things—like a wall that now shows the stigmata of where the big red cross was, as it undergoes preparation for moving with us into our new space. Welcome to the season we mark with a wreath, and this time, one more time for old times’ sake, with a lofty reprise of the big wreath that so often graced our sanctuary—this time courtesy of Verna Thomas and family. If you took the opportunity this morning to make that brief pilgrimage around our building, I hope something resonated with you, or that you discovered something you hadn’t thought about before, or that you gained a new insight or perspective. If you weren’t able to make the trip, I invite you to take a glance at the little signs that are now in the hallway. But in either case, I invite you—in a word or two—to say what came to your awareness during that time in our worship….
Lots of associations in that little tour, I’m sure, and there will be more, no doubt, as the weeks of this last month on site dwindle down. And herewith, not to put too frivolous a spin on things, but to offer light-heartedly what might be yet another perspective on all this: my hastily devised “Top Ten Things We WON’T Miss About This Building”: (Drum rolls definitely permitted)
10. Opening the doors and dripping the faucets so the water lines won’t freeze
9. Figuring out who’s jamming our microphones
8. Putting up and taking down storm windows
7. Forgetting the combination to the key box
6. Wondering how much of the parking lot the snowplow will skim off
5. Renting scaffolding to change a light bulb
4. Hassling over parking with UVM
3. Roof leaking on the Bible
2. Mowing grass
1. Those phone calls asking how in the world to find us
There. I hope that didn’t make too irreverent an inroad into your musings about our church home. But in its own lame sort of way, it does faintly echo Isaiah’s vision of the future. Namely, that there is another side to all this. There is a future beyond whatever is painful in the present. On the other side of a dismaying world—or even a small Vermont corner of the world—there is a day disclosed by the voice of the divine that will be brighter, even brighter by far.
Isaiah the prophet—the part of the scroll we think of as “First Isaiah” rather than the later disciples who compiled the second part—was active in and around Jerusalem during the eighth century BCE, a time when the immediate threat on the horizon was the kingdom of Assyria. As Elinore put it the other day, the Assyrians were pretty good at making war, and most of their neighbors were not very good at standing up to them. It was a time, like other times before and since, when life was hard—a time of terror, injustice, and oppression. And the scroll of Isaiah is replete with images of the Assyrian juggernaut and its consequences, as well as no small amount of blame directed at the leadership of Judah for helping to get the people of Israel into this mess to begin with. There is plenty of condemnation to go around.
But, says the prophet, the day will come. The day will come when not only will things be looking up, they will be looking up in spades. Jerusalem and Mount Zion will be as if they are the center of the universe, the place where the God of the universe will bring to earth a new reign of peace, and all the nations will come there to have their disputes settled and to learn a new way to live with their neighbors without having to resort to killing each other. The powerful image of swords and spears turned into plowshares and pruning hooks is the keynote of Isaiah’s pronouncement, of course, and it stands as a constant beacon of possibility not yet realized but immensely descriptive of the vast brightness of the divine vision, especially when it sits beside the reminders of humankind’s own paltry and self-destructive efforts. And we are reminded that it was out of desperation that such an image appeared: perhaps the glut of swords had finally become obscene enough; a radical dream of a plowshare had to be conceived. The making of peace rather than war may often seem to be a pipe dream, but it is a powerful one that still judges human life, while offering a way we still haven’t tried very much in all these centuries. Isaiah would argue that the disastrous results of what was supposed to be realpolitik in the eighth century BCE called into question which reality was the more real after all. We still live with this conundrum, and we still tend to choose the lesser reality over the greater one.
Some of you have heard pieces of my own lifelong effort to beat a sword into a plowshare, so I will be brief. A recipient of some of the most intense training the Department of Defense had to offer, I was once rather like a sword myself, sharpened and ready for anything I might be called upon to do. It wasn’t until about six weeks into my tour of duty in Vietnam that I had what one would have to call a conversion experience, and it became clear to me that I was simply on the wrong path. Everything subsequent to that watershed has been an experience of trying to learn to be a nonviolent person, and I can tell you that although my struggle has hardly changed the world, and is still very much a work in progress, it has changed me and is still changing me. I really ain’t gonna study war no more.
All of this is really mentioned in passing, as a way of affirming that Isaiah the prophet was right: that there is, by the grace of God, a bright new tomorrow that is possible for us all. It is possible as we live our lives more and more as people of peace, and it is possible as we live our lives—all the vicissitudes notwithstanding, such as having to find a new church home—living as people of hope in the realization of God’s vision for humankind. No, we are not there yet. And it’s mostly bigger than we are, but it is within the scope of each of our lives to change, one small life at a time. And to hope, always to hope. David Davis, in A Kingdom We Can Taste, puts it this way:
We must still be walking, because we’re clearly not there yet. Those prophets’ voice, the prophets’ plural voice, the prophet’s oracle includes an appeal, a reminder, an affirmation for those of us who find ourselves no longer strangers on this worn pathway of life and faith. A word to those of us yet trying to make some sense of what we see, trying to name some purpose. A word to those of us who pray with more than a hint of urgency, “Is a little more peace out of the question?” In days to come? What about now? And the Word of the Lord plays on….Yes, we’re walking still. It must be Advent.
Yes, it must be Advent. And we ask ourselves, in so many ways and at so many levels, what is our own vision of the future? What is our vision of the future beyond the walls of this building, and in that new place where we are heading? What is our vision of the future, out beyond complacency and habit, in that new direction we are being led where we are not promised things will be easy, but that they will be different? What is our vision of the future beyond the habits of the nations, as we keep trying the same old destructive methods, insanely hoping for different results? What is our vision of the future beyond the national orgy of bloated excess that this season so often becomes, with its black Fridays and its hedging and leaching all but kills the spirit? What is our vision of the future that is out in a place on the other side of all that, where we practice giving simple daily thanks for the gifts of God that are enough for us to live? What is our vision of the future as the Season of the Birth of Possibility comes upon us today, and offers to blossom into something we could never have imagined or dreamed? What is our vision of the future, and how do we begin even now to step into it with hope and with trust and with hearts that have finally heard God’s repeated message? I am with you. Don’t be afraid.
…Gonna lay down my burden, down by the riverside…
…Gonna study war no more.
I ain’t gonna study war no more…
Gonna lay down my sword and shield…
Gonna walk with the Prince of Peace…
Gonna lay down my burden…
Rev. Michael Brown
Christ Church, Presbyterian