Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sermon: Peace, Just A Word?

Peace. It is a word that we use a lot.

We look for peace and quiet. When we are relaxed we are at peace. We hope for peace of mind. Want our dead relatives to rest in peace. We even have a hand signal for peace. But I wonder sometimes if we forget the power of what we are really talking about. I wonder if we use the word so much that we take the idea for granted and never plunge ourselves into the depth of its meaning. Listen to how the bible describes it.

Isaiah 2:1-5  This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house will be the highest of the mountains. It will be lifted above the hills; peoples will stream to it. Many nations will go and say,

“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain to the house of Jacob’s God so that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in God’s paths.”

Instruction will come from Zion; the Lord’s word from Jerusalem. God will judge between the nations, and settle disputes of mighty nations. Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. Come, house of Jacob, let’s walk by the Lord’s light.

Isaiah talks about what the world could be. He lives in a country which has throughout history – even into our own time – a country in which there is either war, or the people are preparing for war. There never is really true peace. And Isaiah proclaims that what God wants is true peace. Peace that results in a total change in the way people live and relate to one another. It even changes how nations live and relate to one another.

Too often in this season,

peace is just a word we hear in Christmas songs, it is just a phrase that we print on Christmas cards. It is a nice thought. We treat it like it means living without stress. But it is so much more than that, it is a deep longing for life without injustice. It is God’s dream for the nations that one day wars will no longer be necessary. It is a longing for wholeness in our relationships – not an absence of conflict or a lack of disagreement. But a way of handling that conflict and those disagreements in ways that truly build up community. 

So when Isaiah talks about taking swords and spears and turning them into plows and pruning hooks. What Isaiah reminds us is that there may be changes we need to make, we might need to unlearn some old habits.

I read a story that is both a little disturbing and entertaining.

In the late 1930s Max Schneider, a tenant farmer, was having a tough time of it on the land he farmed in North Dakota. The great depression still had a tight grip on the nation, and farmers were victims perhaps as much as anyone in the country. Prices for cash crops had hit rock bottom, and for Max and other farmers, it cost as much to raise the crops as the money they received for the harvest. Max couldn't continue to feed his wife and seven kids on the money he wasn't making on his crops.

Max heard from other farmers when he was in town that he could sell old farm machinery to scrap dealers. That it was being sold to Japan so that they could make bombs and guns for their war with China. He and his wife were torn, they didn’t like the idea of seeing their old machinery turned into weapons, but they needed money for food and clothes. So they did it.

Years later, after the war ended. Max and his wife Evelyn were doing much better. They actually saved enough money to visit Arizona during the winter and escape from North Dakota. On their trip they noticed the silhouettes of discarded airplanes that had been used in World War II. Acres of worn out places were sitting in their lonely final resting place in the desert. And you know what Max thought?

He turned to Evelyn and said, “I wonder what I’d have to go through to get those old planes and sell them to scrap dealers.”

She looked at him and said, “Are you back to selling scrap metal? The war’s over, you know; what do you think they would want with the scrap this time?”

Max thought for a moment, “I don’t know. Maybe they’ll make farm machinery out of it.”[1]

Isaiah is telling us that we need to change old habits, and then he says there are new habits we need to learn. Whole systems will have to shift so that there is no need for war, as we learn new ways of relating and working together.

But in the end we need God’s help to do this.

You see, peace is not just about our physical state. It goes much further. There is a deep spiritual dimension to this peace, one we have to work to cultivate – it doesn’t just happen. If it did, every peace treaty that got signed would actually guarantee true peace. But they don’t because the spiritual dimension, the seeking of God’s deeper path too often is left out.

Isaiah specifically mentions three things that we have to do: he calls us to “go up to the Lord’s mountain”, he calls us to teach God’s ways and give instruction, and then he says we must walk in God’s paths.

These three actions connect our spiritual growth with true peace. As if, as we work to grow closer to God, when we look at just what God wants from us, when we learn to see what it means to do right in relationship with others, when we actually walk the ideals and teachings of Christ, then peace becomes a reality.

This is true for us as individuals as well as nations. If we want a more peaceful life, if we want less conflict, we have to work on growing closer to God, seeing what God wants, changing how we relate to others, and actually putting into practice Christ’s ways.

So let me give an example: For years we have had a metal hanging outside our house that said “peace” on it as we dream of a world where wars are no longer necessary, and people get along. But is that enough for it to happen? No of course not. It isn’t even enough to guarantee that my life will be peaceful. I have to do more than just put the word on my house.

But I have also used peace as a prayer word. Sitting in quiet when my mind is stressed and my heart is out of sorts, I have tried to settle myself and said “Peace” each time I breathed in, hoping and praying that God would fill me with that peace that I knew I needed in that moment. And this helps bring me calm. It certainly is that first step of seeking to grow closer to God. But is it enough to guarantee that my life will be peaceful? Of course not. I have to do more than just say the word and pray the word.

Next I have to learn the best ways for me to handle conflict.

I have to learn how to relate to people better. I have to learn how to correct problems and disagreements in ways that are healthier. Not so that the other person will be happy, but so that the end result is the best one for all involved. For that to happen, I actually have to change how I act.

And I wish, I wish I could give you the secret in a couple of sentences. But the closest I can come is this: love your neighbor as yourself. That is, love them enough to tell them when they’ve crossed the line, love them enough to forgive them when they do, and keep on loving them. But even that is oversimplifying it. The fact is, it takes a lot of work to learn the ways of peace. And I have been working on that. But I haven’t perfected it yet. I am still learning. God is still teaching me.

Isaiah understood that peace isn’t easy.

He lived in a place that drastically needed to learn from God a new way of life, so he encouraged all of us, to walk by the Lord’s light. He didn’t give up hope of peace, but he also knew that it wouldn’t come by superficially by hanging the word peace on our advent wreath, but true peace requires taking peace into the very depth of our souls, and making it ours. Going up the Lord’ mountain, teaching God’s ways, and then walking God’s paths. Drawing near to God, unlearning old habits and learning new, and then actually living it out.

If you want peace to be more than a word on your Christmas Cards this year, that is what it will take. I pray that you will work to make it happen.

[1] CSS Publishing Company, Inc, Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit, Cycle A, by Merle G. Franke

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