swordI wish there was a parade as large the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day crowd of 3.5 million people with the end destination being the United Nations complex between 42nd and 48th Streets in New York City.  Marching bands would play “Love and Peace or Else” by U2, there would be Buddhist monks chanting in their saffron robes, choirs from Harlem singing spirituals like “Aint Gonna Study War No More.”  They would all march past the statue of the giant revolver with the gun barrel tied in a knot.   On the main stage, Crosby, Stills and Nash would sing, “Teach Your Children Well,” Joan Baez, Bob Dillon and Peter, Paul and Mary would team up to sing “Blowing in Wind” Pete Seeger would have his famous banjo with the words “This instrument surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  The Russian Feminist band “Pussy Riot” would be there, followed by the OJ’s singing “Get on the Love Train.” And at the end everyone would sing in the streets and in their living rooms at home, “Imagine” by John Lennon:  “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

And the camera would pan the United Nations Headquarter building and you would see these words:

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 anymore.

The prophet Isaiah is be the poet laureate of a hopeful, peaceful and just future for humanity.  He gave us the words we will hear all through Advent: the lion shall lay down with the lamb, the desert shall blossom, new shoots will spring forth from stumps and people will beat their swords and shields into plowshares and pruning hooks.  These graphic visual images stir the imagination, however, you might wonder if they have any value if you were to cross the street from the UN headquarters to the General Assembly, where they actually attempt to have some kind of meaningful dialog about ending Iran’s nuclear program and the crippling economic sanctions, where they chastise the United States for the inhuman treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo to no avail, and wring their hands about the 100,000 dead in Syria and the millions of refugees.  If you think the filibuster is bad in Senate, it’s nothing compared to the UN Security Council.  Does anyone in the UN believe they have the power to enact Isaiah’s words written three millennia ago and etched in the walls?  At the General Assembly they may feel powerless and can only pray for real peace, as we do on Sunday mornings  “God of Peace, bring an end to the war in Syria. Lord, in your mercy, HEAR OUR PRAYER.”

 

Isaiah may have been seen as a dreamer in his own day, composing beautiful words, but no more influence on decision makers that John Lennon, Joan Baez and Bob Dillon.  But Isaiah is astonishingly relevant and modern in detail.  His pictures in Chapter 1 are as graphic as the evening news:

Your country lies desolate,

your cities are burned with fire… like Aleppo, Syria or Detroit.

Everyone loves a bribe

and runs after gifts. Like Congress and thanks to the Supreme Court for the Citizen United ruling

They do not defend the orphan,

and the widow’s cause does not come before them. The Sequester, which cuts the pork out the military budget, and the substance away from children’s nutrition and early childhood education.

Isaiah could be just as blistering in criticism as he was eloquent about God’s hopeful plans for humanity.  The challenge to the church today is to live into both the precision strike of critical words that make unjust leaders squirm, while also announcing the great vision of love God has for all people.  Too often the church shrinks from both sides of the task.  In the fear of offending anyone, we do not rise to meaningful critique and allow an unjust status quo to stand unchallenged.  Or on the other hand, we jump in and denounce what is wrong and push for this legislation or that, but we do not connect our actions to our faith in any meaningful way.  Have you ever been to a lecture series where someone quotes a bunch of statistics and tells terrible stories of injustice and by the end you feel totally depressed.  Being critical alone is not being prophetic.

We have been watching a wonderful video lecture series by Walter Bruggeman in Adult Education about prophets.  And Bruggemann says too often liberals (like me) think that prophets were social activists because they were standing on the side of the poor and of peace.  But he says really prophets were the imaginers, the poets, the visionaries of God who call us to the creative and constructive task of living into God’s dream for us and for the world.

Who are the creative imaginers of today that are trying to live out the dream of swords and shields into ploughshares and pruning hooks?  How about Malala Yousefsai, the young woman shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan, who has survived to speak for girl’s education?

In my searching, here is the story that captured my attention during the week.  Cambodia is a country on a long, slow path to recovering from a genocidal war.  When you think of Cambodia you may remember the movie “The Killing Fields” about the Khmer Rhouge and Pol Pot, whose regime killed nearly 2.4 million people, about one in three of the population at that time.  When peace finally came to country, somewhere between 4 and 7 million landmines had been laid in the fields, villages and roads of Cambodia.  Half the fertile land was unusable to grow food for the nation’s people because farmers could be blown to bits.  Shortly after peace, in 1996, 4320 people were killed by landmines in Cambodia, more than all the gun related deaths in the United States in a country with the population of Pennsylvania.  Their plight was brought to the public eye the following year when Jody Williams, born just up the highway in Brattleboro, VT, and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, won the Nobel Prize Peace Prize.  They galvanized action in countries like Cambodia, where the death toll due to landmines in the last year was only 286 people.

 

As inspiring as this story was back in the late 1990s, this did not just happen by UN resolutions and Nobel Prizes. It is also due to the work of people like Aki Ra.  He was one of the children taken from his parents to the Khymer Rhouge “re-education” camps in 1975.  At age five, the Khmer Rhouge found his small little fingers to be perfect for the work of planting land mines.  He planted hundreds of them till he was 10 years old, and tried to remember where they all were.  As the Vietnamese army swept into Cambodia, he was then forced to fight against his former captors and spent a total of 15 years in the jungle.  After peace in 1992, he found a job with the UN doing something of which he knew a great deal.  He got a job as a mine sweeper for about $250 a year.  Since then he has gone through the fields and rice paddies of Cambodia with a stick and knife trying to find all the land mines he planted and then some.  Last January, a team from National Geographic followed him for a few days in an expose on Cambodia’s progress.  He has kept count as he went, and was over 50,000 land mines defused or exploded since he began, claiming farmland acre by acre.  In his spare time he runs an orphanage for children.

It may take 10 more years to clear the Cambodian countryside of landmines.  But already the national GDP has tripled since peacetime, tourists are again coming to Angkar Wat, one of the wonders of the world, and people organize contests raise money to continue the work – like Miss Landmine Cambodia, where contestants must be amputees to be eligible, and 10k races for people with artificial limbs.  So Aki Rha now has a metal detector.  The former killing fields are becoming growing fields again, and imaginative people are living with hope.

 

If Cambodia can accomplish this after a genocidal war, what might people of faith do to beat swords into plowshares?  If one man like Aki Ra, who spent most of his life tossed around as a tool of war, can find the hope to heal his life and his land, acre by acre, with nothing but a stick and knife, what might you do with a little hope?  We don’t have to wait for people on Capital Hill or Beacon Hill to make peace.  There are examples all around us building peace.  Next week is the Hot Chocolate Run to raise money for Safe Passages, sponsor a runner or cheer them on from the front steps.  Tomorrow night we are sponsoring an immigration forum with Iglesia Quechua Nueva Vida, a congregation that meets right in our building.  We have had a vigil for peace and against drone strikes every Tuesday at noon for a year.  Most importantly, teach your children well.  Feed them on your dreams.  Make sure they see you still have dreams for a better world.  Just don’t spend your time worrying about how bad the world is.  Its not going to suddenly change any time soon.  But the reign of God does break out among us, and it often comes in inches.  Its Advent.  Be awake!  Light these little candles of hope.  We celebrate Immanuel coming among us to be born within the mangers of our hearts.