Such as these…

My favorite part of worship yesterday was communion. Specifically the communion hymn: “Jesus Loves Me.” I couldn’t sing myself, since I was serving communion, but to watch everyone’s faces as they sang this song was wonderful. There were tears in more than a couple of eyes. Our window for the week was Jesus blessing the children. These familiar songs and stories can make us feel very nostalgic–for a lot of us, they are probably some of the first things we learned in church. Nostalgia’s not a bad thing, but in my sermon, I tried to push past it a little to dive deeper into what’s happening in the gospel. Let me know what you think!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I was in elementary school, my parents took my brother and me to Hershey Park one summer. And at Hershey Park, at least when we went, the way they measured you for rides is you stood next to these giant candy bars and find which candy bar you’re the same height as. My brother, who is only a year older than me, he was the tallest one—I think a Cookies and Cream bar. Being Cookies and Cream meant that he could go on any ride he wanted to. Now, I’ve always been a little height challenged, and I think I was like a York Peppermint Patty, or something equally embarrassing. This meant that I could not go on all the rides.

This had happened to me before: at Disney World, the boardwalk, even my grandmother wouldn’t let me sit in the front seat of her car when my brother could. Of course, all those things were about safety; the restrictions were there for good reasons. But it didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt so disappointing to not be able to do these things. I couldn’t wait to get bigger, because getting bigger meant being more important. There would be no more kids’ tables, or kids’ meals, no more restrictions on what activities I could and couldn’t do. It seemed like I would matter more when I was grown up.

And I felt that way in a society that values children. In a family where my parents listened to me and cared about my feelings. Jesus’ time wasn’t like that. We hear this story of Jesus welcoming children, and it’s not surprising to us at all. We’ve heard it a lot of times, for sure, but it also fits well with what we know about Jesus. We’ve known that Jesus loves children ever since we learned the song “Jesus Loves Me.” What surprises us is the disciples’ behavior. Why would they be so rude, so mean as to send the children away?

But the people of Jesus’ time would have had the opposite reaction. The disciples’ actions would have made perfect sense, and Jesus’ response would have seemed ridiculous. Children weren’t important then. They were needed, of course, to help with work, to someday take care of their parents, and to inherit. But until that time came, the children themselves weren’t very useful. And, because of high infant mortality rates, they certainly weren’t valuable until they had grown up some.

It’s not surprising the disciples try to send them away. To be seen spending time on children isn’t going to help Jesus’ reputation any. They have nothing to offer Jesus or his followers. The disciples would rather Jesus spend him time advancing their mission, making inroads with the right people. The people who could make a difference. The people who matter.

But of course, that is exactly what Jesus is doing. Spending his time with people who matter. Shocking everyone, he says that these children have a place of honor in God’s kingdom. In fact, the kingdom belongs to them! Instead of the children wishing to be more like the grown-up disciples, the disciples ought to wish to be more like the children. Because this is who God’s kingdom is for.

Society said that children aren’t important, or aren’t important yet, and Jesus said they are an example to all of us right now. They are immensely important to God. It’s not just children; Jesus valued those that his society said didn’t matter: children, women, the sick, the imprisoned, the strangers. These are the people who will find their place in the kingdom of God. God is not experienced in power, but in weakness. Entering God’s kingdom is not a way to become first or great, but it’s a way to identify with the least and most needy.

Who is that in our society? In Jesus’ time, it was children, widows, and orphans. Who is it that our culture says doesn’t matter? Who do we overlook? Or who doesn’t have power? Still today, children are vulnerable, dependent on others. Those without jobs or homes. Those who are strangers in our country, immigrants and refugees. Those who are sick, and unable to find or afford care. Those who are differently-abled. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. To those that we look past or look away from. To those that sometimes, driven by indifference or hatred, we wish would go away.

This story tells us about the radical Kingdom of God, as it is intended to be lived here on earth, as well as in heaven. As Jesus welcomes children to him and declares that the kingdom belongs to them, we learn what this kingdom is like, who it’s for, and what its values are.

It’s a kingdom that values vulnerability instead of strength, mercy instead of power. In God’s kingdom, there is a place for everyone, no matter how insignificant they might be to the rest of the world. This is the kingdom that Jesus came to inaugurate. This is the kingdom that we strive towards.

A place where all are welcomed, and valued, and encouraged. Where none are turned away because they aren’t good enough, or important enough, or from the right place. God’s kingdom is a place where we are able to be our honest selves: vulnerable, needy, broken. We do not have to pretend to be strong if we’re not right now. We do not have to pretend to be happy if we’re not right now. We do not have to pretend we have it all together, if we don’t right now.

This is the kingdom that we are members of. This is the kingdom that we get to be part of building, right here, in this space. The kingdom where all are welcomed. Where you are welcomed, just as you are. And where we are invited to build community centered around the values of God’s kingdom.

Jesus welcomed the children and blessed them. We hear those words and think: how nice and kind Jesus was. How loving. It’s true. But it was a radical love. A love that broke rules and expectations in order to usher in God’s kingdom.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Jesus loves us, it is true. Let us love like Jesus does. Let our love shock and surprise people. Let our love bring down barriers until all are welcomed and valued. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. Amen.

Swords into Plowshares

I did not imagine–nor hope–that my sermon on Micah vision of getting rid of weapons would be as timely as it was. It had already included a paragraph lamenting the gun violence that we experience every day in America. It was depressingly easy to edit on Sunday morning to address the specific instances of violence that occurred last Saturday. In the face of constant news of mass shootings, it is easy to become hopeless and cynical. But Micah offers us something different: promise. Even as we can see that the promise is not yet fulfilled, we are invited to be people of the promise right now.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I first came to St. Paul’s, it was this window that caught my eye. It’s clearly different from the others. The others were all done at the same time, and this one came later. It uses different, darker colored glass and a different style, too. Smaller pieces of glass, almost mosaic like, create the images. This is the only window that doesn’t feature Jesus, either. Instead, we have an unlikely scene for a church: guns and army helmets.

It’s given in memory of Tom Winthrop, a sergeant in the American Expeditionary Forces, who was killed in action in France on September 6, 1918. A little more than two months before the Armistice. He was twenty-four years old. There’s been a lot of focus lately on World War I, in books and film, as we just passed its one hundredth anniversary.

The Great War, it was called then. The War to End All Wars. After the unprecedented devastation wrought in the fields of France, and Belgium, and the Netherlands, no one could imagine that another war would happen. The weapons had become too cruel, the fighting too entrenched. Surely humanity could now see the futility of war, the evilness of war.

The League of Nations was formed. The first worldwide organization committed to maintain world peace. One of its primary goals was preventing wars through collective disarmament. Through turning swords into plowshares. It seemed as if maybe, just maybe, the day was coming when we would not need to study war any more. When nation would no longer lift sword against nation.

But of course, that day didn’t come. The First World War was merely the first world war, to be followed by a second. To be followed by countless other conflicts big and small, which have continued ever since. Violence and hate continue. Weapons continue to exist. Weapons continue to leave devastation and grief in their wake. There were two mass shootings yesterday. Not one, two. Thirty dead and dozens more wounded. It’s become so routine that I’m hardly even shocked or surprised when I hear of a mass shooting anymore.

Micah’s vision, of everyone laying aside their weapons, and sitting under their own fig trees, as beautiful as it sounds, can seem ridiculous in light of what happened yesterday. Of what happens many days. Nice, but never realistic. But this is not just a vision. This is a promise. It is a promise of God’s future. It is a promise that God will bring this about. The prophet Micah isn’t naïve. He was living in the midst of war and death and captivity. And still he spoke of the promised day when weapons of war are turned into agricultural tools. When instruments of death become instruments of life.

It’s a promise for the days to come. It hasn’t happened today, and maybe it won’t happen in our days, but the day will come when God shall judge between the nations. God’s justice is the fertile ground for peace. God judges and arbitrates, and the ending of inequity is ground for the ending of violence. All of the reasons for envy and greed, resentment and fear, will be abolished. And weapons will be rendered irrelevant. There are no longer strong and weak, there are no longer insider and outsiders, for all are gathered together on God’s mountain. That is when peace will come.

All of this will happen, says Micah, because God will make it so. The kingdom is God’s to make. We cannot usher in the kingdom of peace on our own terms or in our own time. But, we can practice peace—within ourselves, among our families, in our neighborhoods, for our world. As people of faith, who have glimpsed God’s light and God’s intention, we get to live this promise right now.

We can look all around and see that the promise might not be complete yet, but that doesn’t stop us from trusting it. So we live as people of peace, now. We live practicing reconciliation now. In the face of violence, and evil, and death, we practice peace, and love, and life.

In reading about this text, I came across a lot of Christmas-related things, probably because Isaiah’s very similar version is an Advent text. And for the first time, I read all of the verses to Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” He wrote this poem shortly after his son was wounded in the Civil War. The first verse was familiar to me: I head the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old, familiar carols play,/ and wild and sweet/ The words repeat/ of peace on earth, good-will to men!

But the last two verses I had never heard: And in despair I bowed my head;/ “There is no peace on earth,” I said;/ “For hate is strong,/ And mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, good-will to men.” Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:/ “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;/ The Wrong shall fail,/ The Right prevail,/ With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

For hate is strong and mocks the song. Despite the hate that we see around us, the violence and the evil that mock God’s promised future, we still sing God’s song. Trusting in the promise of peace. We can glimpse it even now. Can you see the swords being beaten into plowshares? Can you see the rice paddies of Cambodia, now green and fertile? Dozens of programs are ridding the country of land mines and returning the fields to farms. The number of people killed or injured each year in Cambodia by land mines has fallen from a high of over 4,000 in 1996 to just under 300 in 2016. Can you see the farmers working in the field?

Can you see the women, Christian and Muslim together, all dressed in white? They were lying on their stomachs near the main highway in Monrovia, Liberia, where everyone could see them. It was embarrassing to President Charles Taylor. They protested until he finally agreed to attend peace talks in Ghana. And when the talks stalled, the women traveled to Ghana. Can you see them? They linked arms around the government building until the talks started again. The civil war in Liberia finally came to an end. Can you see the women dancing in the streets?

In days to come, people shall stream to the Lord’s house. In days to come, they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. In days to come nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. In days to come, no one shall be made afraid.

But this day, we walk in the name of our Lord. This day, we practice the promise yet to come. This day, we believe in God’s promised peace, and we live that promise in our lives. It is not easy to sing a song of peace in a world of violence and war. But it is God’s song, and it is our song. Until that day when all are gathered together in peace, we will continue to sing God’s promised future into our present.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.