Sermon for Sunday, September 19, 2021 || Proper 20B || James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
This is a sermon about peace. To start, I’d like us all to take as deep a breath through your nose as your mask will allow. Then, on your exhale, slowly and quietly speak the word “peace.” First, the opening consonant, a simple “puh” sound, what linguists call a ‘voiceless bilabial plosive’ – ‘puh.’ Next a long ‘E’ sound, which we can spend much of our breath on. Then finish off the breath with the sibilant ‘S’ sound, a chorus of sizzling. All together now. Deep breath in. Peace.
On that exhale, we breathed peace into the world, along with our carbon dioxide. Now the trees and grass outside will take that CO2 and transform it into energy and water, their own breaths of peace in a world torn by violence (see note below). The trees and grass send their roots deep, holding the soil to the ground and preventing erosion. And those plants outside all came – a month ago or a hundred years ago – from seeds. Seeds planted in the ground with the hope of sprouting. Our breaths of peace, our embrace of a life of peace, are also seeds. They are seeds planted in the soil of our souls and in the heart of our communities – local, national, and global.
The events of the Bible take place during times of violence, much like our violent world today. And what astounds me about so many passages across the length and breadth of the entire library of the Bible is how consistent is their cry for peace. In a violent world, the ancient people who wrote about the presence of God in their lives, wrote about peace.
- Today’s reading from the Letter of James says, “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
- Paul says, Let us “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:9).
- Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”*
- Three times following the Resurrection, when the disciples are in hiding, Jesus comes to them and says, “Peace be with you.”
- Three of the songs at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel speak of peace, including the Song of Zechariah, which says, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).
- The psalms are full of the yearning for peace in verses like: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14).
And the most famous of these passages appears twice in the Bible, once by the Prophet Isaiah and once by the Prophet Micah. They say:
[God] shall judge between the nations,Isaiah 2:4 (also Micah 4:3 with slight variation)
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.
The prophets envision a world in which swords and spears will be unnecessary and can be turned into gardening tools for planting the seeds that will grow into James’s “harvest of righteousness.” Another translation calls these “seeds of justice.” The Greek word translated as “righteousness” or “justice” has a deep meaning of “all things existing as God intends, the harmony of relationships, the balance of creation working in the ways it is supposed to.” In other words, a creation that is at peace within itself.
That we use the language of seeds and gardening tools to speak of peace is telling. Peace grows like a seed grows. We tend that growth with trowel and hoe and plowshare and pruning hook. And we reap the bounty of peace in the harvest so that all may thrive. Peace is not a static, motionless thing. Peace is not passive. Peace is a dynamic force of sustenance and growth that binds us together like the grass binds the soil, keeping it safe from the erosion of violence.
Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to join retired bishop James Curry at a farmers market in New London. Bishop Curry is part of a group called Swords to Plowshares, which is affiliated with the organization RAWtools. Swords to Plowshares takes guns from donations and buy back programs and reforges the metal of those guns into gardening tools. Last Saturday, I got to hammer the barrel of a rifle into a trowel. It was so meaningful to remake a weapon into a tool that someone will use to plant seeds in a community garden.
In 2020, people in the United States used a gun to kill almost 20,000 people. And almost 24,000 people in the U.S. took their own lives using a gun.** Nearly half the guns in the world are in the United States, so groups like Swords to Plowshares can’t really put much of a dent in the number of guns on the street. But they can help change the narrative of violence into a narrative of peace. In their book, Beating Guns, Shane Claiborne and RAWtools founder Michael Martin say, “The prophets knew that with a little holy fire metal can be reshaped – and so can people. They knew weapons that kill can be transformed – and so can people who kill. The prophets of old were not…trying to predict the future. They were trying to change the present. They invite us to dream of the world as it could be and not just accept the world as it is.”
When I was hammering away at the heated metal of the rifle barrel, I could imagine the prophets’ dream. I could feel it in my arm that was growing tired and in my fingers that were getting numb from striking metal against metal. I was literally making peace. I hope that each of you can have that experience one day. At the same time, we do have that experience every day when we choose peace over violence, when we choose justice over oppression, when we choose to sow seeds in the ground for a harvest of righteousness.
RAWtools, the group Swords to Plowshares is part of, gets its name because RAW is ‘war’ spelled backwards. This backwards spelling made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. I’ll close this sermon with my favorite scene from the strange and sometimes beautiful story of Billy Pilgrim, who has come unstuck in time. The scene goes like this:
“[Billy] came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:
“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen…
“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks…
“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals…The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”
* Jesus also said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). I do not think this verse negates the overarching cry for peace in the Bible. Rather, I think that Jesus is indicting the “peace” of violent institutions like Rome, which proclaimed the pax romana while violently subduing unrest throughout the empire.
At the 8am service I messed up how trees take in carbon dioxide, and thankfully one of my parishioners (a chemist) corrected me with this: