I apologize for my lack of posts! I decided to do my doctorate, which has, um, slightly altered my priorities and time commitments in the world. One consequence is that I will taking a few months off from preaching. I may try to write in this space about what I am exploring in my studies (Buddhist/Christian comparative theology) but I can’t promise! 🙂
Here’s my last sermon for a while. Subject: The Peaceable Kingdom. Unspoken subtext: Quakers rock.
The Peaceable Kingdom
In 1812 a man named Edward Hicks – a Quaker minister – set off across the Pennsylvania countryside preaching in different churches. To finance his ministry, Hicks took to commercial painting: advertisements on the sides of barns and carriages, this kind of thing. But then he started painting scenes from the book of Isaiah chapter 65 – the very text we read this morning – a vision often called the Peaceable Kingdom. Following Isaiah, Hicks imagined a time when all human beings and wild beasts would lie down together in peace – and in the center of every painting, little child to lead them, the figure of Christ, just as Isaiah foretold. Hicks grew frankly obsessed with the peaceable kingdom, painting canvas after canvas of this same basic motif, a total of 61 paintings in all. (I don’t know about you but I don’t think I would have the patience to paint the SAME THING, 61 times!)
These paintings are now considered classics of 19th century art; you’ll find them in some of the most famous museums in the world. You’ll also find one on the front of your bulletin this morning if you’d like to have a look. But: what was it that drove Hicks to return to the peaceable kingdom over and over again, trying to get it just right? Clearly the dream of a peaceable kingdom had taken hold of Hicks and would not let him go. Like Isaiah before him, he dreamed the dream of peace.
You walked in this morning into a church called PEACE church, because presumably that is our dream here too. What do we mean by peace? What is it that we’re doing here, in “peace church”? What kind of peace are we striving for? What kind of peaceable kingdom are we hoping to establish?
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah had a vision from God about what peace would look like: the end of weeping and crying; health and strength even for children and the old; houses to dwell in and vineyards rich with fruit; and best of all, the end of all forms violence: safety and security for all. “No one will harm or destroy on my holy mountain,” declares the Lord. Edward Hicks had a clear vision of what peace would look like for him, too: a vision of non-violence where not even the wild beasts of the jungle felt any need to bare their claws. Both of these men saw peace so clearly, could imagine it in such detail, that they could literally paint it: one with his poetry, and the other with his paintbrush.
Neither man, by the way, lived anything remotely resembling a peaceful life. The prophet Isaiah lived through a time of war and violence in Israel and had the charming job of calling his people to repentance complete with threats of fire and brimstone – not always a popular preaching message. Edward Hick’s life was marked by challenges, as well: personal difficulties, serious church fights, failed farming efforts, and serious financial troubles. Hicks went broke more than once.
Well, we know what that’s like. We, too, have known our fair share of personal struggles, financial problems, failed endeavors, and painful relationships. Sometimes we get the distinct feeling that all is not well with the world – not yet. Sometimes we experience the world around us as anything but the ideal peaceable kingdom.
And as a result we start thinking of peace as something that we will experience when the situation and the timing are right, when the stars are aligned, when our luck improves. Peace becomes something we will hope to enjoy sometime in the future: when things get better, when a certain situation resolves, when we’ve finally gotten things under control, when this job starts or that relationship ends. Or we might even start thinking of peace as something we could accomplish, if we only made more of an effort, worked at it a little bit harder, were a bit more aggressive with our peace efforts.
This was pretty much the Pharisees’s approach to the kingdom of peace in Luke chapter 8. They wanted to know when the kingdom of God was finally going to arrive. Sure, Jesus kept telling parables about the kingdom – mustard seeds this, leavened bread that – but where was this kingdom? They didn’t see any kingdom. Kingdom? What kingdom? We don’t see any kingdom. In our Gospel reading this morning we find the Pharisees challenging Jesus directly. “Hey Jesus,” they call, “this “kingdom of God” you keep talking about, the kingdom of looove, the kingdom of peace …pfuuuuf! We don’t see any kingdom!
Jesus responds. ‘The kingdom of God is not coming like a thing that can be seen; no one will say, “Look, here it is here!” or “There it is, over there!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’ Some translations even say, “The kingdom of God is in your midst,” or even: “The kingdom is within you.”
This must have left the Pharisees scratching their heads. Huh? Among us? Within us? They were looking for the glorious reign of God in the world, the start of the political reign of God that would end all their problems with the occupying Romans. The Pharisees wanted to see the kingdom established, for once and for all, out there in the real world, where everyone could see it and where they could benefit from it. They weren’t ready for the subtle teaching that the kingdom is in here.
But the peace that Jesus offers all his disciples – including us! – is in here. Christ’s peace is not the peace that is out there, over here, coming some day, or some time – not peace that will happen when the right party or politician is elected, or the UN enforces it, or a miracle produces it. And Jesus is pretty clear that when we look out there somewhere for our peace, we will never find it. The peace that depends on a certain situation; that depends on other people, on whether someone likes us or not; peace that depends on a certain job or a certain figure in the bank – well, that is no peace at all.
As followers of Christ we are offered something infinitely better. In the gospel of John, Jesus promises: “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” The very peace of Christ himself, the risen Prince of Peace – now that is the peace we need.
To go back to my Quaker artist: Edward Hicks knew all too well what keeps us from experiencing the peaceable kingdom. In fact, each of the animals in Hick’s 61 paintings represents a different threat to our hearts’ peace. Let’s look together at the front of your bulletins. In the center you see the dangerous, smoldering lion; this lion represents our ego. He is aggressive, angry – roar! – by far the most threatening character. Next to the lion is an ox that represents sloth and melancholy. Then you see a bear; he represents excessive greed; and the howling wolf, anxiety and fear. There are more animals but I think you get the idea. Hicks knew that these are the kinds of restless, insatiable characters who pose a threat to our spiritual peace.
Hm. Well, I don’t know about you, but I know these animals a bit too well. I confess the lion of my own ego is not always as tame as I would like him to be – and sometimes, the claws come out! Sometimes the wolves of our anxiety and fear howl and howl, drowning out everything else with their noise until we can no longer hear the calming voice of Christ saying “peace, be still.” Or sometimes the greedy bear in all of us runs madly off in all directions looking for success, or money, or popular approval, dragging us along with it. Too often in our own hearts, there is no peaceable kingdom – the furthest thing from it! Somewhere deep in here, the lion is not lying down with the lamb. (—-Did I just hear growling?)
But in the center of every one of Hick’s paintings was always the little child who had come to lead them all: Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has come to tame our lions and restore our souls to His perfect peace. My peace I to give you, my peace I leave with you is the same promise Jesus speaks every time he walks into the jungle of our hearts. And His perfect peace can be ours too. Jesus offers peace that calms all the growling and raging going on inside. Jesus offers peace that stills our anxious, agitated minds and stops our fears from howling. Jesus offers peace that is so profound that we all lie down our weapons of anger and bitterness to take up again the hard work of loving one another: turning all of our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Jesus creates a peaceable kingdom in our hearts.
Edward Hicks got it: he knew that the battle was in here, not out there. And he could produce an utterly compelling, captivating vision of the peaceable kingdom, even in the midst of a broken world of pain and sorrow and strife, because he understood that the peaceable kingdom was inside him, and not in the world around him. Even in the midst of great strife, he was living in the kingdom of peace.
Into our painful, broken, beautiful, outrageous lives, Jesus has come to give us his very own peace. So whether you wake up tomorrow and the sun is shining or the storms are raging, whether the sky is falling or the world is exploding, or your bank account is empty, or your teenager hates you or I don’t know what: you can still be in your heart in the kingdom of peace. The kingdom of God is among us and within us, brothers and sisters, because the Prince of Peace is in our midst.
Let us pray:
Peaceable God, searching Holy Spirit, and Jesus, our Prince of Peace: we ask you to come into our lives today and establish a peaceful kingdom within us and in our midst. Amen.