The Plowshares of Advent

Rehoboth United Methodist Church, 11/28/13

Early on the morning of September 9th, 1980, seven men and one woman walked into the GE plant in King of Prussia, PA.  They were not supposed to be there, and were worried that after months of planning, their mission would collapse at the last moment.  Visibly nervous, the woman and one of the men split off towards the security guard, who was reaching for his phone.  Before he was able to call for backup, the nervous man had pinned him to the wall, while the woman slammer her hand down on the phone’s receiver.  Knowing that security backup would be delayed, the other six proceeded on to their target- the factory floor, and the nuclear ballistic missile components being assembled there.

Minutes later, when the base security team arrive on the factory floor, nothing in their training had prepared them for what they found.  Several of the intruders had taken out blunt tools and were hammering on the missile components.  While they beat away, the rest of the group had found the plant’s file cabinets, and were in the process of spilling containers of chicken blood over the paper records.  When confronted by the security team, the surrendered immediately, revealing themselves as several priests, lay leaders, and one nun.

The events at King of Prussia on that September morning were the first actions of a group calling themselves the ‘Plowshares Movement.’  Phil Berrigan, the leader of that first action, was at various times a Roman Catholic Priest, a leader of draft protests during the war in Vietnam, and multiple nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, for his advocacy of nuclear disarmament.  Berrigan and several of his friends (one of whom later donated his personal papers to the institution where I was employed) chose them name “Plowshares Movement” as a direct reference to the scripture passage from Isaiah we read this morning.  “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 to war any more.”

We may not agree with them, but we can learn from the eight men and women that morning.  To the members of Plowshares, Isaiah 2 is not a prophecy of the future, but a goal to work towards together.  Isaiah speaks of the coming peace of God, but it is not God alone who brings peace to the world.

Advent begins next Sunday.  Thanksgiving falls late this year, and Rev. Chapman graciously offered me my the option of using the lectionary texts for next week, when, as I understand it, there will not be the usual Sunday services.  Advent is a time to look ahead to Christmas and to hope breaking into the world.  It is right and proper that we do this.  But Advent is also about looking back in a way, no?  The events Christmas celebrates took place over 2000 years ago, and to Christians Christ is come, and indeed the Holy Spirit is with us now, even in this very room.

As much as Advent is about looking forward, we must look forward in the knowledge of what has come before.  In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes about this tension.  He writes assuredly that ‘salvation is nearer to us than when we became believers.’  But we also know what has come before.  “The night is far gone, the day is near.”  Paul calls us to live into the daybreak we see on the horizon, putting on the armor of light and living ‘as in the day’ – as if the reign of God were now.  In many ways, while there is hope for a coming messianic age, the reign of God is now – and it is our responsibility to act in ways that reflect it.

So what does this mean for Isaiah?  From the beginning the passage is ambiguous.  The phrase that opens the account in 2:2 denotes in Hebrew a time in the future, yes, but as a part of time, not outside of it.  While it is sometimes translated as ‘in the last days’ (which places the passage firmly as an apocalyptic one) a better translation, I believe, is ‘in days to come.’  Nearly 3000 years have passed since Isaiah was written, giving ‘in days to come’ a somewhat unclear quality:  Is this something we are still waiting for?  Is it something happening now?  Could it be both?

Next, I want to look at who in this passage is doing what.  In 2:3, ‘many people’ desire instruction from the Lord, and take steps to receive it, that they ‘may walk in his paths.’  After receiving the Word of the Lord, it is again the people who respond, beating their own spears into plowshares and learning to war no more.  God’s action in the passage is straightforward, with ‘instruction from Zion’ and ‘the Word of the Lord’ from Jerusalem.

While I’m relatively sure that this is not what the author intended when Isaiah was first put to paper, what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘the Word of the Lord?’  What about another reading, that comes at the end of Advent every year:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word, certainly in classes Carl and I share at Wesley, is no more or less than the person of Jesus Christ.

Now we’re left in an interesting place.  To recap this possible reading of Isaiah 2:

  • At some point after Isaiah’s prophecy, around 800 BCE, people will look to God for instruction.
  • Jesus Christ comes into the world, teaching the Lord’s ways, and the people desire to emulate him.
  • In response they beat their swords into plowshares, and make war no more.

Where can we see ourself in this process?  The approach of Christmas means that Jesus has come, teaching the ways of the Lord and of a coming age of peace.  The proliferation of ‘What would Jesus do?’ bumper stickers, if nothing else, suggests that there’s a deep desire to emulate his life and teaching.  While few of us, perhaps, would agree with Phil Berrigan and the Plowshares Movement’s methods, they should be commended for deeply living out what they see as Jesus’ nonviolent teaching.

In this season of Advent, let us consider what we are doing in the world to reflect and live the hope we know has come.  Rather than wait passively for a future second coming and reign of peace, let us listen to St. Paul, and the Gospel of Matthew which remind us that while we cannot know the date of Christ’s return, we can and must live uprightly, as if the day is upon us now.

What could this look like, hoping for a future to come while living its promise today?  Certainly we are not all Phil Berrigan, breaking into arms factories as a symbolic gesture.  What other examples are can we turn to?

Next Sunday is World AIDS day.  I spent two years living in Southern Africa, in a little village called Bobete, up a mountain path far from any major cities or roads.  At the center of the village is the area’s only clinic, which serves about 50 villages, some a two day ride on horseback from Bobete.  Lesotho, the country Bobete is in, has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, with over 40% of working age adults infected.  While I was there, hardly a week went by without a funeral in Bobete or one of the surrounding villages.

This time of year, Bobete is in an uproar.  Almost every house in the village is cleaning, preparing to host guests from other villages, coming for World AIDS day.  The cooking has already started, and for the next week the smells of baking bread and stewing mutton will fill the village.  By next Sunday, the village will swell in size from 200 to several thousand people, who will all make their way to the airstrip by the clinic for the festivities.  World AIDS day, my neighbors said every year, was bigger than Christmas.

What’s important to us in this story, I think, is the tension in that gathering between hope and recognition— recognition of what has already happened, and hope for what is yet to come.  At World AIDS Day in Bobete the people desperately hope for and imagine a world without HIV, where the villages live in peace and health, no longer afraid of this scourge stalking through them.

At the same time, the event is held at the clinic, and is a celebration of how far we’ve come towards a cure.  Drugs to treat the disease are available and free at the clinic.  Hundreds of volunteers work to care for the sick, teach prevention classes, or grow gardens full of vegetables whose nutrients can help to ease the symptoms of AIDS.

While a cure or vaccine for HIV, when it comes, will certainly come from outside the little village of Bobete, on World AIDS day the people gather to celebrate the work they are doing, however small, to reflect and bring about the hope they have for the future.

Isaiah 2 is, to my ears, one of the most beautiful, evocative images in the Bible.  “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war any more.”

Yet this is not simply a beautiful image of a blessed community yet to come, but a vision of a world that humans build together, following the teaching and example of the divine.  In this coming season of Advent, when we look in hope for the coming of Christ, let us also reflect on his coming 2000 years ago and the era of peace that event inaugurated.  Christianity’s message is not merely one of future hope, but of the potential for us, as imperfect as we are, to live in brother and sisterhood together.  With God’s help and example, let us build peace here on earth step by step, even as we look forward to the ultimate peace to come.

Blessed be, Amen.