1 December, 2013

Swords into Plowshares, a sermon

Two of my church members at home have a great garden, where they produce fruits and vegetables, and especially flowers. Many Sundays at the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship, we have flowers provided by Esther and Paul. And lots of times they’re in a very special vase. It’s brass, a little misshapen, and it’s made out of a bomb casing from Vietnam, where they lived doing community work during the Vietnam War.

When I look at it, I think, “There it is, swords to plowshares.” What exactly does it mean to turn our swords into plowshares? It means taking the weapons of war and turning them into implements of gardening. It means converting things used for evil into things used for good. It means turning a rock into bread. It means turning fear and hatred into love and respect.

Our Hebrew text today is found in the Book of Isaiah chapter 2:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 

Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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 any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

The Message Bible (which I’m not always a fan of, because it takes so many liberties with translation) says some of this really well.

All nations will river toward it,
    people from all over set out for it.
They’ll say, “Come,
    let’s climb God’s Mountain,
    go to the House of the God of Jacob.
He’ll show us the way he works
    so we can live the way we’re made.”

He’ll settle things fairly between nations.
    He’ll make things right between many peoples.
They’ll turn their swords into shovels,
    their spears into hoes.
No more will nation fight nation;
    they won’t play war anymore.
Come, family of Jacob,
    let’s live in the light of God.   

We talked about the Book of Isaiah last week… Isaiah was written in three sections. The first was probably prior to the Babylonian capture of Judah, the last books written after the return from captivity. This part of the book is a last-ditch effort to save the people from themselves. Isaiah seems to be saying, “We can turn this arround. We can turn our swords into shovels. So we can live the way we’re made.”

God’s goal for God’s people is that they live in peace. It’s the way we’re made.

What do you think it takes to turn our swords into plowshares?

I served a church in Washington, DC from 2003-2005. You all know Washington, DC, don’t you? It’s the home of the President, Barack Obama, right now. It’s the seat of the government of the United States of America. It’s also the epicenter of the military in the United States. I hope I don’t have to tell you that the United Sates has quite a military industrial complex–nearly 1.5 million people work for the military. But that’s just the people who work directly for the military. That doesn’t include all the independent contractors, companies who build things for the military (like ships and airplanes), and then all the employees who work for veterans–the people who get out of the military and need medical care, benefits, and lots of other things.

In my church we had a lot of military personnel. It was not a pacifist church, although there were many people who believed in pacifism, there were many people who believed in war. But when I read this text, one church member comes to my mind. He had been in the military. In fact, he was a veteran of two wars. He was a military man through and through. He was pretty pro war. Until he became a Christian. And when he began to see the light of Christ in the eyes of others, he quit the military. He quit believing in the idea of war. He was the first on board when we began to meet our neighbors, including our Muslim, Jewish and Hindu neighbors. He used to say to me, “I am not gonna study war anymore.”

All of that because he saw the light of Christ in himself in and other people.

What do you think it takes to turn our swords into plowshares?

Jesus tells us pretty specifically, in our Gospel text.

But if you are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for the happiness of those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give what you have to anyone who ask you for it; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do for others as you would like them to do for you.

The theologian Walter Wink has written extensively about this text in its context. We’re given three ideas of how to love our enemies. And at first glance they look like they mean for us to be a doormat. Jesus never wanted Christians to be a doormat.

The first is “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek.” The Matthew text of this verse says this, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

Let’s look at this. Watch this. A slap on the cheek. Right fist, left cheek. So it must be a slap, with the back of the hand (remember that to strike anything with the left hand was not done). The back of the hand was not used, in Jesus’ time, to injure, but rather to insult, degrade or diminish a person. And this was only used with people who were below your social class–children, servants, wives, and Romans would slap Jews. However, when the cheek is turned, the person hitting HAS to hit with the right fist, instead. In this ordered society, you only hit your equal with a fist. Turning the other cheek “renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in the relationship.” In order to slap the other cheek, the master had to see the humanity of the person he was slapping.

The second is “If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” Again, you have to understand the context here: if someone is requiring your coat, it is to pay a debt, and the indebted, in Roman times, were the poor. The rich Jews were taking advantage of the poor Jews, in order to pay off the taxes required by the Romans. What the rich Jews really wanted was the land of the poor (which was given to them through their lineage from the time of Moses), but they were forbidden by the Torah to actually claim those lands. But they could take their cloaks. 

When the poor gave their shirts, too, though, then they stood naked before the court. And the shame was not on the poor person who was standing there naked, but instead on the rich person who made the poor naked. The act of stripping naked says, basically, to the creditor and the court, “You have taken everything. What will you take next?” Again, the courts and the creditor have to see the humanity of the person leaving his cloak.

And finally, we’re told to “give to anyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”

Sharon Ringe, a professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, says that throughout the book of Luke, the Good News about Jesus Christ is that economics and social status are turned upside down and is being replaced by a “social structure founded on generosity, respect, and equal treetment for everyone.”

Again, I ask. What does it take to turn our swords into plowshares?

It takes seeing the light of Christ in ourselves and in all people.

We’re going to do communion a little differently today. I’m going to ask you all to stand in a circle. We’ll circle the room. And we will pass communion to each other, and we will say, “I see the light of Christ in you.” Say it with me. “I see the light of Christ in you.”

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