Sermon for 1 Advent 2016

27 November 2016
Advent 1, Year A

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I’m sure I’d heard this morning’s reading from Isaiah before, but the first time it really sunk in for me was fifteen years ago. It was the first Sunday of Advent 2001. The terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania had happened three months previously, and our country had invaded Afghanistan just a month-and-a-half earlier. And a callow, seventeen-year-old version of myself heard this at church that morning:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

It might have been the first time it occurred to me just who else was hearing this reading. Politicians at church in Washington that morning heard it. Congregations at small Christian churches in majority Muslim countries like Iraq and Pakistan heard it that morning. Soldiers fortunate enough to attend chapel services in Afghanistan heard it that morning. And how very far from reality those words from Isaiah seemed.

How far from reality those words still seem. I sometimes joke about how out-of-date my pop culture references might seem to today’s young people even though I’m still pretty young. More shocking, though, is how people just a few years younger than me, today’s high school and college students, can’t really claim to remember a time when our nation has not been at war. None of the children in our parish were born during peace-time.

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

How does this become a reality? I’ve said from this pulpit that we don’t have the luxury of saying that we can just wait until God comes and fixes everything, but that is, sadly, the stance of many Christian sects. We heard that strange reading from Matthew’s Gospel a few minutes ago, in which some are taken and some are left. Several Christians believe that Jesus was speaking of something called “the rapture”, wherein the righteous are spared the calamities of the end-times and the wicked are left behind. This belief was invented by some fundamentalists doing some very bad biblical interpretation during in the nineteenth century. We can have that conversation at some point but it would take longer than you’d want to stay in your pews. Suffice it to say, that in this morning’s Gospel reading, the one’s taken away are Christians who would be persecuted under the Roman Empire and other anti-Christian powers (as they still are in some parts of the world), rather than being whisked away to heaven to avoid the final judgment. The idea of a “rapture” as the fundamentalists would call it (like you might read about in the Left Behind books or hear televangelists talk about) is, as far as I’m concerned – and in this I agree with the vast majority of serious biblical scholars – way off the mark.

So, with regard to the difficulties which beset our nation and our world, we’re not off the hook. We don’t get to just wait until Jesus comes back and raptures us up and lets the sinners hash it out. We are called to be a people of peace here and now. We’re called to help the usher in the reality of the Kingdom so beautifully envisioned by Isaiah.

Now, I’ve got a pretty bully pulpit here, but I’ve not got the ears of those who make the big decisions regarding these issues. One of my predecessors at my previous parish, Fr. Cotesworth Lewis, had that kind of pulpit, but it was after he had left Arkansas and become rector of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg, Virginia. He got to get his vestry all angry at him for denouncing the Vietnam War while Lyndon Johnson was in the congregation. I don’t particularly want that job.

What I can say to you is that peacemaking begins at home. There are plenty of swords and spears which need to be re-purposed in our homes and in our community for the sake of the kingdom. None of us has much he or she can do with regard to international affairs beyond the ballot box and making a few charitable or political contributions. Nonetheless, we’ve got plenty we can do here. We can redirect the energy we spend hating those with whom we disagree to loving them in tangible ways. We can beat the sword of malicious gossip into the plowshare of raising awareness with regard to the needs in our community. We can beat the spear of domestic strife into the pruning hook of self-sacrificing, unconditional filial love. We can take the money we spend for creature comforts and spend it on supporting those who don’t have enough for a meal or a winter coat.

Where can you redirect your own bellicose energies to serve as a peacemaker? I can only speak for myself, and so I shall, I hope not uncomfortably confessionally. I spend too much energy being angry with people I think are petulant and meddlesome when I could be using that energy to love them. I spend time and energy grousing and being depressed about things I don’t like that I could use to make it more like the kind of place I’d like to live. I discount people I too quickly put into categories that I can easily dismiss, when I could try to actually approach each individual with whom I come into contact as a unique child of God and find some common ground with him or her.

Those are my misplaced priorities. Those are my sins. But I think each of us has some place in our lives where we can allow God to transform war-making into peacemaking. All of us have swords and spears in our souls which can be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks if only we let God work in us.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.