Peace be with you. And also with you.
It’s a simple, heartfelt blessing we bestow on one another during worship. Peace. Well-being, calm, focus without frenzy. Peace. It’s a gift given to us and all people by Jesus as he prepared his disciples for his death and departure.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. . . let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. [John 14]
A blessing with which to face troubles and hardships and strife, providing assurance that peace is the foundation that stands. I don’t think I’ve ever led a funeral or memorial service where this text was not invoked. Even in death, there is peace for the departed one and for us who grieve.
Jesus embodied the peace that had been foretold for thousands of years in the religious tradition. The morning text is a prophetic picture of the whole world at peace, inaugurated by one especially endowed with gifts that produce the fruit of peace—justice, equity, and understanding.
It’s a beautiful picture. . . . and one that I cannot even imagine in our world today. We are so far from a peaceable kin-dom, with raging wars, incalculable suffering of children, unfettered gun violence that robs us of lives and a sense of safety and security. Our public discourse is marked by hate speech and ugly falsehoods. We seem incapable of resolving conflict without rancor and solutions that all too often merely silence or marginalize the opposition. I wondered what you were thinking as we lit the candle of peace this morning. Could its fragile flame provide illumination beyond these sacred walls?
The text would have us believe that it’s possible. As I read it, I invite you to sit back comfortably and picture in your mind’s eye what a world of peace would look like. How would it be expressed among the nations of the world? What would it look like in our life together, as a nation, a city, a church? Can you imagine how peace feels? A reading from the prophet Isaiah, in the eleventh chapter, verses one through nine. Listen for God’s Word to the church and to anyone who is weary and skeptical that peace will ever come. [Isaiah 11:1-9]
After an absence of more than eighty years, wolves are returning to Colorado. Through an extensive re-introduction plan by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission—-including voter approval in 2020—a pack of grey wolves from Oregon will begin arriving this month. Ranchers are nervous. Everyone knows that wolves and livestock don’t live side-by-side; as one comedian put it, Maybe they’ll lie down together, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.
Well. You may know that there’s a good reason for this. The wolf re-introduction plan promotes environmental sustainability. Killing off predatory animals turns out to be another example of human overreach, with damaging consequences to nature’s ecosystem balance. This is a plan for restoration and repair….and just maybe a move toward a more peaceful world. (I learned the plan would compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves $15,000 per animal, three times more than the State allows for losses from mountain lions or bears. Because, you know, reparations always require expense.)
The power of Isaiah’s picture rests in its focus on the natural world. The peaceable kin-dom does not require the destruction of the current world and the re-creation of another. This is no apocalyptic vision involving damnation for the many and salvation for the few. Instead, it is a re-ordering of the status quo. Same earth. Same characters. Same community. But different ways of doing things. Like adjusting to the presence of wolves. Some accommodations have to be made. Parks and Wildlife met with ranchers to offer guidance on the protection of their herds. Environmentalists outlined the benefit of a healthy wolf population on mountain biomes. Experts on animal behavior calmed public fears by noting that wolves in the wild generally avoid humans. However, they cautioned hikers in areas where mountain lions and bears are present to be similarly on the lookout for wolves. One went so far as to put the responsibility firmly on people, commenting If we can teach humans proper behavior [around wolves], we’re not going to see any human conflicts.
Friends, the peace foretold by prophets is not some impossible dream that will never, ever happen. It has already been realized in the life and teachings of Jesus. He conferred it on disciples then, and it is still available to us. We can have peace, and we are able to share it with others. The ritual of passing the peace is more than just a time of greeting. It is a reminder to ourselves and each other that there is an antidote to the brokenness, sadness, anger, and regret that is part of human life. It’s the peace of Christ, and it can heal, repair, reconcile, and move us beyond revenge and punishment.
If it works with wolves, then there’s a good chance it can work with us, too. If we can teach humans proper behavior around other humans, then we’re not going to see any human conflicts. And what is that proper behavior? Isaiah merely pointed to it by describing the One who would initiate that day of peace. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy as a leader upon whom the spirit of God rested: a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength. Jesus demonstrated knowledge of the truth beyond self-interest to show us the God of Love. And this God reverses the order of human hierarchies to lift up the lowly and bring down the proud and powerful. Though Isaiah certainly caught the new order of peace, he couldn’t quite let go of his human calculus that required the killing of the wicked. It would take Jesus to show that the practice of revenge was a guaranteed failure, only able to entrench violence in the world’s expectations and practice.
Love your enemies, Jesus said, and do good to those who harm you. Turn the other cheek. Reconcile with the one from whom you are estranged ahead of reciting pious prayers and enacting an empty ritual. Love your neighbor as yourself (which, of course, means granting grace and acceptance to yourself as well as others). No wonder Jesus also blessed the peacemakers as children of God! It is not easy to act differently from the way things are. It takes a lifetime to practice. And I dare to believe we are assisted in that process by a faith community, people who care deeply, who are committed to Love as the highest good, and who are willing to risk welcoming the wolves as another step toward an earth full of peace.
One of my favorite children’s books is entitled We’ll Have a Friend for Lunch and involves a group of cats who strategize about how to catch the delicious birds flying and nesting all around. The birds do not infrequently mock them for their lack of intelligence and agility, even as they keep a watchful eye on them. The cats hit upon a foolproof plan when they decide to get acquainted with the birds, learn their habits and perspectives, and then invite them to lunch. With the birds’ defenses down, they can easily pounce and turn them into the main course.
The plan goes swimmingly at first. They get to know the names of the birds’ nestlings, which ones are swift flyers, and which one knows where the juiciest worms can be found. But when the day comes to stage the lunch, the cats begin to balk. We can’t eat a friend for lunch! We can’t eat a family we know. We can’t even hate a family we know. [Jane Flory, We’ll Have a Friend for Lunch, Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1974]
Friends, until we see God in every person, there won’t be peace on earth. And how can we see God in every person until we recognize them not as enemies, combatants, rivals, or rejects but as siblings, brothers, and sisters who, like every one of us, bear the image of the Love that rules the universe?
I’m grateful for Isaiah’s picture that helps us envision a day when the earth will be full of peace. If you can’t imagine it, it’s impossible to realize. But the peaceful kin-dom of our text —amazing though it is- is not enough to sustain hope when, instead, the earth is full of violent fury, bloodshed, inequity, exploitation, and environmental degradation.
Friends, we need Jesus as never before. We need to hear his blessing over discouraging news, competing claims, and ego-driven arguments: Peace be with you. Peace be with you. Then, may we find wisdom and understanding to follow his example with our hearts, minds, souls, and hands. Peace be with you. And also with you.
May it be so.