“The Peaceable Kingdom” A sermon preached by the Rev. Abigail Henderson at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC, on the Second Sunday in Advent, Dec. 5, 2010.
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
You may or may not know Edward Hicks by name, but I bet you’d recognize his iconic work. Hicks was an early American folk painter, born in 1780 in the immediate wake of the Revolution. He is best known for creating over sixty—perhaps 100!—paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom, the vision described in today’s reading from Isaiah.
Hicks’ many renditions of the scene vary but always contain familiar elements. A pastoral landscape based upon his native Pennsylvania. Bug-eyed lions, cows, bears, wolves, lambs, leopards, hovering stiffly yet beautifully together. Plump children ensconced among the animals, including the central little child who leads them.
As with many folk paintings, the canvas’s perspective seems flattened. The proportions are not realistic but symbolic. For example, the quick-tempered lion often looms large, its violence barely tamed. And then there are the little scenes-within-a-scene you find in the backgrounds of the Peaceable Kingdom tableaux. Hicks liked to insert depictions of William Penn establishing a treaty with the Native Americans. Like Penn, Hicks was a Quaker who had faith in the power of peace—in spite of, or perhaps due to, the violent era that birthed them.
Of course, we also live in a violent era. And on this Second Sunday of Advent, as the church universal prepares for the birth of the Messiah, the prince of peace, I find myself wondering about my own faith in the power of peace.
I recently moved to Powderhorn Park in South Minneapolis, and you may have read about my neighborhood in the local news. On November 12, a twelve-year-old girl named Guadalupe was shot in the neck and paralyzed, the victim of a gang-related drive-by shooting. The incident took place near an intersection which has seen six murders since 2002.
Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, a mother was cross-country skiing in the park with her two children, a boy and a girl. The mother was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by four teenage boys, who then focused on her daughter. The mother resisted. The boys fled, and were finally apprehended by police while in the process of assaulting two teenage girls.
I think many of us have “trigger points”—social issues that get to us, make us feel crazy, make us see red. One of mine is certainly violence against women and girls. When I imagine the perpetrators of these crimes, I am at a loss. Who were the shooters, and how could they fire into a young girl’s face? Why did these boys—14, 15 years of age—go on such a rampage against the bodily integrity of their female targets? What on earth was going on inside them?
At times like these, the Peaceable Kingdom becomes an incredibly poignant image. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” I remember giving voice to those words as a small girl, when I was the youngest reader at my church’s Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols service. I loved that reading—I imagined all the animals sleeping together in one big heap, like a pile of puppies. I didn’t really grasp how, in the Christian church, we traditionally understand that Hebrew text as a prophesy of Jesus’ birth. I just liked picturing a little child at the heart of it all—in fact, I vaguely wanted to be that child, that lion-taming, peacemaking, blessed child.
I’ve changed my mind.
Reading the text through adult eyes, I am terrified by all that responsibility. I connect the dots now, understanding the qualities of leadership described at the beginning: His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. This person—this savior, this restorer of peace—rules the earth out of his awe-filled and unique relationship with God. “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” In other words, according to one commentator, “This king will hold justice and fidelity to his people as close to him as his underwear!” Furthermore, he doesn’t just walk around leaving happiness and harmony in his wake. No, there is an intermediate step of no small significance.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
The original author of this text may have had a real figure in mind—possibly Hezekiah, one of Judah’s more successful kings. But ultimately, these words are eschatological, meaning they look forward to the end of time, to humankind’s ultimate destiny. So it’s not surprising that Isaiah’s king sounds so… unreal. He is not of this age.
That is, until we skip ahead about 700 years and John the Baptist, a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, insists that the time is upon us! That king—that Messianic king—is on his way, and you had better make room for him. And remember that part about how the king going to judge everyone? Our Gospel reading doesn’t mitigate that judgment with harmonious images of sweet animals. No, John the Baptist echoes different parts of Hebrew scripture; this king is like an axe cutting down poisoned trees, and a winnowing fork separating the wheat from the chaff. And we heard what happens to the chaff, at least from John’s point of view.
But who is wheat? Who is chaff?
The mother who was assaulted in Powderhorn Park released a statement, describing her attackers as “hurting, scared children,” whom she hoped would get the “support they need to reconnect with their essential goodness.” She asked supporters to send the boys “all the love you can muster. I think they really need it.” Her statement was read aloud Wednesday night at a vigil dubbed “Peace for Powderhorn.”
I was there, one in a crowd of hundreds. We held candles in our gloved hands and breathed the cold air. I listened to the mother’s words and I thought about wolves and lambs, leopards and kids, the lion and the calf and the fatling together. I thought about all the complex factors at play in the incident: race, gender, poverty, privilege. I thought about how those same factors were at work in this very vigil, which, so far as I could tell, was attended and organized largely by white people.
I imagined what it would feel like if Isaiah’s messiah chose that very moment to appear, shining God’s light to this dim and murky situation. I thought, we could use the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of God. We really could.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. No one showed up to save the day.
But here’s what did happen: Mayor R.T. Rybak took the stage. He applauded the courage of the mother and the efforts of Powderhorn citizens to “take back the park.” He said a few words about the role of political leadership in ensuring the safety of all citizens. And then he encouraged us to do something that, in his words, we were already doing: “Turn to someone you don’t know, introduce yourself, and talk about this community.”
I was by myself and feeling shy that evening (believe it or not—I feel shy sometimes). But I dutifully turned around and started talking the woman standing behind me—Sharon. Oh, it was awkward at first. We found a groove, though, and we chatted and shared our thoughts about Powderhorn—what was great, what wasn’t, what had happened and how it made us feel. We ended up exchanging emails. I promised to be in touch. I hope I can keep that promise.
Sharon’s and my encounter reminded me of a community organizing model currently being practiced by our very own Board of Christian Involvement. The main unit of this model is the “one-on-one”—an intentional conversation between two people. Each person shares their perspective and their passions. They learn about where each is coming from, and note where those passions might overlap.
If one-on-ones happen in large numbers, they add up to communities that know each other better, that more fully understand their strengths, that recognize the needs around them and can identify points of collaboration. The BCI is starting to do one-on-ones with people in the congregation in order to better understand our context. And soon, the Visioning Team will organize more of these conversations between members of our congregation and the wider city, as well as small reflection groups drawing together different parts of our community. Stay tuned for more info, including Jane’s article in the December Chimes.
One-on-ones aren’t a magic bullet; they’re not like peace treaties between lions and lambs. But they represent a gesture that is both physical and spiritual—a leaning toward each other, rather than away. There is something biblical in this image. In fact, when John the Baptist speaks of repentance, he uses a Greek word that means “to think differently” after something. The corresponding words in Hebrew and Aramaic mean “to turn, to change directions.” When a person chooses to connect with another person, they are essentially following peace around, following in its general direction—even when the path is unclear.
I believe churches are called to do the difficult work of turning toward peace collectively. This is a challenge. In this place, for example, we value spiritual self-discernment and our individual passions and causes. But none of us are Messiahs. We’re not bringing peace ourselves, for we are human and limited. But we can help prepare the way for peace—make room for it to manifest—by asking fundamental questions and seeking out good work.
That’s part of the not-so-hidden agenda behind January 22, the First Church Day of Engagement. On this day, you all are invited to participate in different types of service in collaboration with local organizations. Now let me be clear—we’re not auditioning organizations or projects to find the ones we like best. No, these organizations are doing us a great service, allowing us to enter into their worlds. We’ll see what they do, but perhaps more crucially, we’ll see what we do. What could it mean for us, as a community, to serve together?
How might we ourselves change? And how, in turn, might we begin to change our corner of the world?
January 22 is just the beginning of the conversation. It has to be. This is the work of a lifetime. After all, Edward Hicks painted The Peaceable Kingdom at least sixty times over, and was working on yet another version, a present for his daughter, when he died.