Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Promise of Peace

Isaiah 2:1-5
Advent 1
November 27, 2016
William G. Carter

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 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 Christmas cards will begin to arrive soon. Many will announce the grand wish of “peace on earth.” Peace is a Christmas word. The angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. They announced the birth of the Savior and sang of peace. It comes to us when the candles are lit and we sing “Silent Night.” Peace is a Christmas word.

But peace is also an Advent word. Advent is the season of longing and anticipation. For the four weeks before the birth of the Christ, we listen to our hearts. What does the world need? For what do our souls hunger? What do we want for ourselves and for our planet more than anything else? At the top of the wish list is peace.

It’s what we want. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation any more.” That is a beautiful hope. We can hang the picture in the gallery of all our hopes.

What comes to your mind when you hear about peace?

I recall how one of the young adults in our church was serving in the army. He was deployed to a far-off land, to a dangerous place. His mother was worried. When he came home, he showed up with a buzz cut and a big grin. We met for coffee and I asked if he had any good stories. He showed me a picture of him holding a happy Afghan child in his arms. The little girl had a fluffy toy in her hands. That’s peace.

There’s a picture in my memory of a police officer with a group of teenagers. They were in a rough neighborhood. The sky was dark, the streets were littered. And here’s this white police officer and four or five African American kids. They are playing basketball together, shooting hoops and laughing. That’s peace.

Or imagine this: a picture surfaced from the late winter. Here is a family that we know, gathered in a kitchen on a Sunday night. But they are not sitting in front of the television, watching football and eating chicken wings. They are serving up supper in a winter shelter for people who have no roof of their own. Perhaps they could have stood back and considered the difference between themselves and the people they served. But they knew those differences aren’t important. They stood with the hungry and the homeless, and everybody had something to eat. That’s peace.

Peace is possible, says the prophet Isaiah. People can come together, despite all that keeps them apart. The prophet says, “All the nations” will stream into the house of the Lord. He does say all the nations. Presumably that includes all the people of all the nations. This is a really big vision.

Peace is the will of God. It is what God desires and what God makes possible. The prophet says peace comes as all the nations go up to, and through, the house of God. God’s ways are not the ways of war. God’s paths are the practices of peace. And when all the people are filled full of God’s instruction, they will get along. The nations will cooperate, rather than infringe, invade, dominate, or plunder.

It’s a big vision, a universal vision of what God values most of all: for people to live in peace. It’s so big that the prophet Micah pretty much copies the same words in his own book. As an old friend once said to me, “If a sermon is worth preaching once, it’s worth preaching again.” I believe that. I don’t do that very much, but I believe that.

Someone said this is the kind of text to be read aloud in public, and often. “There is no shortage of occasions in the cycle of the year, and in the life of nations, for which such a reading would be appropriate: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the signing of peace treaties, or visits to the Vietnam War Memorial.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 70). Because if we don’t keep alive God’s vision of peace, all we are doing is merely remembering war.

So the church gives it to us to read on the first Sunday of Advent, as we look ahead for the coming of Jesus Christ. The question, really, is how we turn the vision into reality.

Some might say, that’s none of our business. If there is a promised time of peace, it will be God’s doing. It won’t be our doing, because human beings are incapable of making peace and keeping it. Do you agree with that?

It’s true that our species has a continuing preference for division. We hold onto hurts and nurse grudges. When a man came along and told us to forgive one another, we put him on the cross. We don’t do well when it comes to living in peace.

After we went to war with Afghanistan, one of our members dropped by to see me. An older woman, she had lived through her share of wars and rumors of wars, and she declared she had enough. “Good for you,” I replied. Then she gave me a book and said, “Maybe you can preach a sermon on this some time.” The book was titled War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

It was a good book. Well, actually, it was a difficult book. Chris Hedges, the writer, had been a war correspondent. He survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. A former divinity school student, Hedges had seen what war does to people – and how conflict entices them. His conclusion is that war is like an addiction. We can’t help ourselves.

One of my teachers tells about visiting Jerusalem. One day the guide took him to see the Wailing Wall, the last remaining remnant of the great Jerusalem Temple. It’s a holy site. The women cover their heads and step off over here. The men put on yarmulkes, wash their hands seven times as a ritual, and then they can step up to make their prayers.

Just then, a fight broke out. Fists were flying, men were punching one another, and there was blood. Sirens sounded, the riot police were called in. Rival factions were pulled apart. It turns out two different rabbinical schools had gotten into a fight. The reason for their battle? They disagreed over the moment when the Sabbath begins. Does it begin when the sun goes down or at the appearance of the first evening star? This is the reason they fought.

The tour guide turned to my teacher and said, “Are you a Christian?” Yes. “Now do you know why your Jesus didn’t have a prayer in this town?”[1]

There’s just something about being human that won’t let a disagreement drop. Somebody has to be right, somebody has to win, somebody has to prove superiority, somebody has to grind the loser into the dust. And is the will of God? No, of course not. It’s like an addiction that we cannot beat.

So if there is a grand vision of peace, God’s going to have to come in and do it. Some would say we are incapable of peace without divine intervention.

Others would say that’s giving up. Peace is completely our business. Getting along with enemies is our business. To quote the ghost of Jacob Marley, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” (from Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

Every day, we can do something to make peace where there is no peace. There is a fence to mend, an enemy to pray for, an apology to make, a kindness to extend. Given the all-too-prevalent addiction to conflict, we must find the human strength to heal, as best we can. And this involves speaking up, even acting up, when there is something wrong that can be corrected.

My friend Rick got himself arrested a few weeks ago in North Dakota. He and ten other Presbyterians drove out to stand with the Sioux people of the Standing Rock reservation. They were part of a gathering of hundreds of religious leaders. They joined with the Sioux people to peacefully and prayerfully protest an oil pipeline that is aimed through sacred land and the water supply.

When there was no response from the capitol, Rick and some others went up to Bismarck to circle the capitol and have a prayer vigil. When there still was no response, he went to knock on the door of the governor’s mansion – and promptly got himself arrested. He told a reporter he did it as a person of faith. “It’s not enough for me to pray for change, when there’s something I might be able to do to help create the change.”

Whether or not you agree with him on that particular issue, the point is well taken. Maybe there is something we can do, to create peace where there is no peace, to right the wrongs, to stand up for those who are cast aside. As the prophet Isaiah says, after the people are instructed in the ways of the God of peace, “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” We can’t leave peacemaking only in God’s hands.

Down in Mexico, there’s an artist named Pedro Reyes. He had an idea. The city of Culiacan in western Mexico was overwhelmed by gun murders, and the city leaders had tried everything to reduce the violence. Pedro gave them an idea and they tried it together. The city worked with business leaders to create a campaign to benefit the community. If people turned in their weapons, they would receive coupons that could be traded in local stores for appliances and electronics.

They collected 1527 weapons. Forty percent of them were high powered weapons of military caliber. The army took the collection to a military base, and in a public act, they crushed the guns by a steamroller. Then Pedro had the metal taken to a foundry and melted. Then the metal was sent to a hardware factory to produce 1527 shovels. Just like the Bible passage, the weapons of war were transformed into farm tools.[2]

Before we give into the violent impulses of the world, maybe there is something you and I can do.

“Nation shall not rise up against nation.” That is what the Word of God declares as a promise for the world. Some would say it’s impossible for us to pull off, so we pray for God to come and make it happen. Others would say the vision is given to us, as people of faith, and there is something every one of us can do to move us closer to a peaceful world.

For me, I want to hold both perspectives in tension and not let go of either side. Yes, we must be realistic about what kind of world this is, and what kind of creatures we are. True peacemaking seems impossible, and certainly beyond what any one of us can do. Yet, the very fact that we have the vision of the possibility of peace means that it is our responsibility to keep the vision alive. We can do that, because it is God’s vision, and it is given for you and me to live out the promise here and now.

Fifty years ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel made their third studio album. It was full of mellow vocal tunes like “Scarborough Fair,” “Homeward Bound,” and “Feeling Groovy.” The album was destined to be a big hit, and went triple platinum. But the final song on that album was a big surprise. It was “Silent Night,” the Christmas carol.

Some of you remember that the big surprise was not only did these two Jewish guys sing “Silent Night,” but that the recording had a voiceover from the seven o’clock news. They were singing “all is calm, all is bright,” while a news announcer reported on the Vietnam War. They sang, “sleep in heavenly peace,” as the news announcer told of race riots and the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.[3]

“We couldn’t have one without the other,” Paul Simon told somebody. He was exactly right. We can’t sing “Silent Night” without listening to the painful noises of strife and war. And we can’t ever give in to the strife and war on earth without affirming that, at the heart of all things, there is heavenly peace. We hold them together until peace finally wins.

And we do this in the name of Jesus Christ, the One we nailed to the cross, the One whose coming we await. He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He ought to know.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Thanks to Fred B. Craddock for telling stories like this.
[2] Find the story at

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Job That Jesus Refused

John 6:11-15
Christ the King
November 20, 2016
William G. Carter

Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

“Those who seek Christ for something other than Christ himself will find Christ flees from them,
yes, the Spirit of Truth flees from them, too.” – St. Rupert

At the height of frenzy during the recent election season, there was a great new product available online at Amazon. It was a 100% cotton t-shirt, available in steel gray for the low price of $24.99. Word is that these were selling pretty fast, especially after each of the three presidential debates. The sales would also have a good bump after the latest polls were revealed, or after any news story having to do with e-mail servers or derogatory words about women or Mexicans.

It was a t-shirt with a message, and it declared a political preference with perfect clarity: “Jesus for President, 2016.”

Friends tell me that they saw matching bumper stickers on everything from a pickup truck to a Prius. I noticed a lot of people making the same statement on Facebook, especially when it seemed like their favorite other candidate would not win. Some even went as far as to declare the election wasn’t going to matter at all to them, because Jesus was their president, no matter who ended up in the White House.

So I thought about this brief story from the Gospel of John. We have to swap the word “king” instead of “president,” not a difficult exchange to make. They wanted to make Jesus king, and he withdrew and slipped away.

In a way, you can’t blame him. Who would want the job? Really! Especially now. Everything you say is broadcast continuously. Everything you do is criticized. Opponents crawl out of the woodwork to oppose you. Old opponents suddenly become your friends, apparently if an appointment is possible. You can’t even send the second-in-command to a Broadway show without having the cast stand up and make a speech.

Would you want that? Would you want to put your family through that? Who would want to become king?

When I was a fourth grader, I thought it would be pretty cool. You could ride in a limousine and eat whatever you wanted for supper. Best of all, you could boss everybody around and they would have to take it.

I remember seeing an old Peanuts cartoon. Lucy says to Linus, “Do this!” “Do this!” “Do this!” In the last panel, Linus replies, “You’re right. You would make a good queen.” When you’re a kid, the possibility of power and unlimited respect seems like a wonderful thing. But when you see what the job entails, you have to “give up your childish ways.” Or at least, the rest of us hope so.

They wanted to make Jesus king. Why? Reflecting on the text, we can think of a number of reasons.
The first is very simple: their bellies are full. A multitude has just been fed, thanks be to Jesus. Thousands of people were there, the disciples wondered what to do. Jesus borrows a little kid’s lunch – five barley loaves and a couple of fish – and five thousand people are fed.

Everybody was amazed. They had trailed after him because of all the healings that he was doing; maybe he could heal them, too. Then he feeds everybody, and the crowd goes wild. They were saying to one another, “This is the prophet of God!” So they wanted to make him king.

The reasoning went something like this, I believe: Jesus is a miracle worker, and if we make him the king, he will be our miracle worker. We will have whatever we want. Grace will be gushing out of a faucet. We won’t have to worry about looking for bread. We won’t have to prepare our own supper. He will just give it to us, if we seize him and declare him our king.  

And Jesus slips away from their grasp. He doesn’t seem interested in giving people what they want. His mother sneaked up behind him at a wedding reception and said, “They ran out of wine.” He looks at her and says, “Woman, what is that to me?” He’s rude to her. As she skulks away, only then does he turn water into wine. (John 2:1-11) Not because she asks, but because he chooses to do so.

Likewise, his good friend Lazarus is dying. They send for Jesus to come, in the hope that he will heal his friend. What does Jesus do? Don’t know, actually; he sits still until Lazarus is dead. Then and only then does he go to the tomb and call him out (John 11:1-53).  Not because they want him to do it, but because he chooses to give life again.

I suppose that means nobody is going to make Jesus king, especially if it’s because they want him to do whatever they want. No special interest groups to influence the Savior!

OK, fair enough. But they want to make him king. Because if he’s the king, he can handle everything. That’s what kings do, right? Not only do they have the power, they have the authority. They speak the order, they sign the paper, they take charge. They get things done.

The people around Jesus knew that. They were Jews, they had the story in their Bible. They remembered, from their own history, how their ancestors went to the prophet Samuel and said, “Why can’t we have a king? All the other nations have a king. We want a king.”

Samuel said, “You don’t want a king.” But the people said, “Yes, we do. We want to be like all the other countries, and they have kings.”

Samuel said, “You don’t want a king. Kings send your children into battle. Kings take over your fields and reap the harvest. Kings take a tenth of all that you have, your food and wine and horsepower, and use it as they wish. Kings steal your daughters and eat your olives. You don’t want a king.” But the people persisted and complained, until God said to Samuel, “OK, give them a king.”[1] Let them learn the hard way.

And do you know something? According to the history books of Israel, they didn’t have one perfect king. Oh, they thought the next one would be the right one, but they were wrong … maybe because all their rulers were men. Yet they never gave up hope, even after the nation was repeatedly invaded, even after the office of “king” was eliminated. “The next king is going to be good. He’s going to handle everything for us.”

So Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, reminds us that a big thick book in the Bible is called “Kings.” The history was so thick that they had to put in two large scrolls, later called “First Kings” and “Second Kings.” Brueggemann says the real title of those scrolls ought to conclude with a question mark: “Kings? You call these kings?”[2]

So maybe we should give up the vain and silly notion that, if only we put the right person on the throne, they will give us what we want. Our earthly rulers can’t ever live up to those expectations. They need our prayers so that they might govern wisely. They need our prayers because they will ultimately answer to the God.

Yet the people wanted to make Jesus king. The notion first arises in the first chapter of John. Nathanael, sassy Nathanael, hears about Jesus and says, “Nothing good ever comes out of the Podunk town where he’s from.” But Jesus throws it back at him, and then lets him know that he has observed a lot more about Nathanael than is comfortable. So Nathanael says, “You’re the king, the king of Israel.”[3] The idea is planted. Like a seed, it starts to grow. The buzz begins to spread.

By the time we get to chapter six, the crowd is cheering and surging: they want to make Jesus the king. And there’s nothing like a crowd, especially when most of them agree with one another. That’s one of the remarkable reports from our recent election. There were mass gatherings of people, everybody in agreement. If you speak against, you might get punched or hauled out of there. And if a huge mob is cheering in unison, it’s hard to say no.

And Jesus says no. They were about to seize him by force and make him king. He would have nothing of it.

Maybe if they had read the Gospel of Matthew, the crowd would have known better. You probably remember the story. Jesus was in the wilderness, working out the implications of his baptism. The Tempter came to him and said, “I’m going to give you all the political power in the world. Just say the word, and the kingdoms of the world can be yours.” According to Matthew, Jesus said, “Go back to hell where you belong.”[4]

Maybe if they were paying attention on Palm Sunday. The Gospel of John says it got pretty noisy. The crowds saw Jesus, they cheered with a victorious Psalm. They called him “king.” They even cut down palm branches, just like they did when they had a political uprising against another empire, almost two hundred years before. “This Jesus, he will be king. He will drive out the Roman army, he will restore the Temple to its full glory, and then there will be no more PeeWee Football or Travel Soccer to interfere with Sunday School. We’ll be in charge.”

But  - and it’s a mighty big “but” - Jesus climbs onto a donkey, just like the humblest leader that old prophets ever mentioned. Because he wasn’t going to be that kind of king.

Maybe if they were listening when he stands before Pontius Pilate. Pilate says, “So I hear you are a king.” Jesus says, “Those are your words.”  Pilate said, “I’m no Jew. What have you done?” Jesus says, “My kingship is not from around here.” So you’re a king? And Jesus says, “For this reason I was born: to point to the Truth.” Pilate doesn’t get it, any more than the crowd who had their bellies filled.

In one final, slick move, Pilate decrees that a sign be placed over the prisoner’s head when they put him on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Some of his enemies complain, “He isn’t our king.” But Pilate leaves the sign up there, translated into all the languages of the city. And everybody who passed by wondered what kind of king he was. All the kings they know don’t get crucified. All the kings they’ve ever heard about don’t withdraw from the cheers of the mob. All the kings that the world notices are the ones who love to be in charge.

And yet, Jesus is King. Not because our bellies are full, but because he already is king. Not because he gives us whatever we want, but because he is the Source and Destination of our lives. He is not the king because somebody puts it on a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, or a Facebook post; his kingship does not originate from human acclamation or getting a lot of votes. Rather it comes from the love of God that sends Jesus into a world like this.

I think I know why he disappeared when the crowd wanted to make him king. It’s because he doesn’t need a crowd in order to be crowned. He doesn’t need our approval before he grants us life, or grace, or daily bread. He doesn’t ask our permission before he forgives us or sends us out to forgive. He doesn’t need anything more than our awakened hearts, seeking him, loving him, living like him, following him, giving ourselves for others just like him.

In the words of St. Augustine, “Jesus is sought after for something else, but not for his own sake.”

So there’s our answer: to seek him for who he is, and not for what we want him to be. To live for him and not merely for ourselves. To praise him for his own sake, and to rejoice that the whole world is held in his crucified hands. To love all the people he loves, and to trust in his mercy.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] 1 Samuel 8:10-22
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Knox Preaching Guide, 1 and 2 Samuel
[3] John 1:49
[4] Matthew 4:8-11

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Living the Dream

Isaiah 65:17-25
November 13, 2015
William G. Carter

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord — and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

It has been quite a week. Do I have an amen? 

There have been a lot of conversations around the nation since Tuesday. Many of the conversations have been trying to make sense of what has happened. Some are trying to explain the outcome. Others are looking for someone to blame. Some are calling for the abolishing of the electoral college, so that the person with the most votes will actually win. Others are worried that their kids are going to lose their health insurance. Some people are relieved at the outcome, some are terrified. Some are gratified that half the country agrees with them, while others under the same roof of a divided house are planning to protest.

With all of these conversations, the preachers have been talking among themselves. What will we say after a national election? What will we say when our nation is clearly divided in half, where there are no clear winners, and where there is no mandate by one side or the other. We have lived through an election season where, at some point or another, the only majority of the population preferred “none of the above,” yet a vote had to be taken and a decision had to be made. Those are the facts. So what does the preacher say?

Of the scripture passages appointed for today, some would turn to the 21st chapter of the Gospel of Luke. It’s a passage where Jesus is talking about the end of the world, and that’s precisely why I did not include it within the readings for today. We studied it with our men’s Bible study last Thursday, and it shook them up. Jesus says, “The heavens will be shaken, there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues, signs in the heavens. False prophets will declare, ‘I am the one,’ and they are lying.”

I thought about reading that one, but it would scare the children. By the time I got to the end, where Jesus says “those who endure will be saved,” I was afraid nobody would be enduring. So I didn’t read Luke 21.

We did include 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, or as one comedian called it, “Two Thessalonians.” In that passage, the apostle Paul is very clear: “if you don’t work, you will not eat.” Now, that might sound like a criticism of those who are lazy, and in a way, it is. But Paul has something specific in mind when he speaks. He is denouncing those he calls “busy bodies.” That is, those who might have a lot to say, but don’t actually produce anything.

I wonder if he was referring to all those talking heads on cable TV, the pundits and commentators. They have plenty of opinions, but for months they have been filling the air with a lot of blather. Certainly they have to claim no small responsibility in stirring up controversy, replacing truthful reporting with unnecessary drama. Or to use Paul’s phrase, “busy bodies.” We could talk about that, I suppose, but it would be a huge distraction, and we would never hear Paul say, “Do not weary in doing what is right.” (3:13)

So we turn to the choir, and ask them to sing the third reading, often called “the First Song of Isaiah.” That one is really good. It’s helpful. We hope the melody sticks with you for a while: “Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and not be afraid.”

As for me, the text for the day that provides a gravitational center is the poem from Isaiah 65. One of my friends said, “I don’t know; Isaiah 65 smells of funeral lilies. That’s the only time I ever hear it.” I went back at him and said, “It’s not about death. It’s about life.” God’s going to make new heavens and a new earth. That’s a profound hope that recurs through the Bible, and this is the first time the Bible says as much.

“New heavens, a new earth” – sounds like the hope for the season of Advent, which starts in a couple of weeks. Why new heavens, and a new earth? Because the old ones are worn out.

Imagine a world, says the prophet, where everything fit together. Imagine what it would be like if all the pieces fit.

Isaiah gives us such a scene near the end of the collection of his writings. It is a picture of joy and delight, no weeping or distress. Life is never cut short, and people live out the full length of their days. There is continuity between their dreams and their fulfillment: families build houses and live in them, farmers plant vineyards and then enjoy the wine. Everybody will enjoy their daily work, and everything will fit.

That’s the picture. At the heart of it is an astonishing vision of peace: predators aren’t consuming, the prey aren’t hiding or running away. The wolf and lamb are at peace together. The ravenous lion is a vegetarian, and steps up to the feed trough next to the ox. Imagine this, says the prophet Isaiah. Imagine a life where everything fits.

This is what God dreams for the world. This is the dream that God implants in the imagination of the prophet Isaiah. This is the dream that lingers to be written down in the Bible, where it is waiting to be rediscovered by every generation and lived with fresh energy.

It is a powerful dream, because it is an alternative to most of the stories that actually appear in the Bible. The Bible is honest about the way life normally is. God creates a new earth in the book of Genesis, and by page three, Cain rises up against Abel. Pharoah enslaves a whole race of people as his work force, and pretty soon, people are trying to destroy one another. These aren’t ancient fairy tales. They are honest observations about the human animal. We live in a world where good work is met with resistance and the innocent are crucified.

It suggests the problem with the human race, in a nutshell. God implants this dream within us, and we keep choosing something less than the dream. Don’t blame the devil or anybody else for this. No, it’s what we keep choosing. In our world, women are demeaned and treated as something less than the image of God that they bear. Those who are deemed different are shunned or cast out. The weak are plundered, often to improve the profits of the arrogant. And everybody interrupts or shouts over one another.

This is why we regard the Bible as truth: it’s the truth about real people.

But the Bible also speaks the truth about God. For our sake, God is “slow to anger and abounding with steadfast love.” And every day, we have the opportunity to live out the dream that God has for us. See the wolf and the lamb feeding together. Imagine that. Nobody gets hurt, there is no destruction, only peace on God’s holy hill.

That’s the ultimate truth, where God declares, “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.” Then God says, “I will rejoice and delight in my people.”

One of the reasons why we come to church is to catch one more glimpse of this grand dream. One of the reasons why God calls us to church is to keep planting this dream in our hearts and minds. Left to our own devices, we will never hear the promise that God wants all creation to flourish and live in peace. We will merely slide back into the mud and muck, and act like wild animals. All our imperfect progress would be lost.

Someone was telling me about a terrible scene she observed. An angry man was bloviating about science. He said all kinds of nasty things about scholars who spend their lives trying to study and explain how nature works. Then, of all things, he started ranting about evolution, yelling “Evolution cannot be proven. There’s no evidence of evolution.” My friend looked at him long and hard, and then she declared, “In your case, you’re probably right.”

Haven’t we had enough of the rants, the anger, the put-downs, and the destructive speech? Haven’t we had enough of distorted truth, public information withheld, and outright bullying? Haven’t we had enough of people who make fun of others, in order to advance themselves? Haven’t we had enough of the wolf attacking the lamb?

Yes, I think we have. Because Isaiah 65 says this not the way it’s supposed to be.

Our Christian hope is that the peace is something that God is always creating. The Hebrew Bible calls it “shalom.” It refers to a balance between all the forces of life. Shalom is about the continuity of past and present. It’s about a life lived without aggression or its damage. It’s about welcoming one another as neighbors, and not competitors. It’s about the possibility of living in peace with everybody we meet. This is God’s dream, given to us.

So let me make a modest proposal – that we live the dream, specifically this dream. That we live as generously and graciously as Jesus. That we set an example among ourselves how to respect one another, how to serve one another, how to love one another. Let it start here. Let us be a church where God’s love for every person is palpable.

The first Christians forged the church by living like Jesus as best they could. They didn’t take their orders from the Roman empire. They lived the dream, God’s Isaiah 65 dream. People outside were drawn to that, because they knew it wasn’t just a church dream. It is a universal vision of how we can build and spread God’s shalom. Even the critics admired the church and said, “Look how much they love one another.”

What if the people of this community could look to this church and say the same thing? What if we could treat one another with such respect and compassion that our neighbors said, “We want to be part of a group like that?” Now, that would be living the dream.

And maybe it starts with small, steady steps that benefit the lives of others. Like my friend Jenny, who lives out in Kansas City. She heard a loud noise and went outside to see what it was. It was a guy with a leaf blower working his way down her street. He doesn’t live there, but he’s clearing all the leaves from everybody’s yard. Why’s he doing that? And he said, “It’s been a weird week, and this is a way to bring some goodness and blessing to it.”

And I think that’s what I want to say after a week like the one that we’ve had.

God bless you. May you be a blessing for others.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved