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.

One thought on “Swords into Plowshares

  1. First, thank you for teaching me some parts of history that I hadn’t heard before–especially about Cambodia and Liberia. Those stories encourage me to believe that, if we work together, we can change the world for the better. And thank you for quoting Longfellow’s poem, which I love. I felt really sad and discouraged when I came to church yesterday because I couldn’t get the weekend shootings out of my mind, so thank you for reminding us that in God there is hope for a new day of peace and justice. I just wish it would come soon!


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