Rev. Danielle K Bartz February 27, 2022
Isaiah 2:1-5 “Neither shall they learn war any more”
Last week when I reflected on this text, I reminded us all that visions like this one and the myriad others found in scripture and human history are not impossible asks. Rather they are the keys to unleash the possibilities that come from imagining a better world is possible. Prophets and leaders cast visions, which may seem to some impossible to achieve, but we and the faithful throughout this world know that with God all things are possible.
But there is a part of Isaiah’s vision that I was stumbling on – not because I don’t believe it but because I was trying too hard to intellectualize it. Let me re-read for you verse 4: “God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide justly for the peoples; they shall beat the swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” If ever there was a needed vision for the world today, this is it.
I have been trying to understand what it means to learn war – because if we are called to not study war, then we must first understand how we are taught it. I was trying to figure this out and I was trying too hard. I was trying to understand all of human history, socio-economic realities that lead to violence, the balancing of moral and ethical decisions – I was trying to reach for too much. And then I opened my mailbox on Wednesday afternoon and the only thing in it was this flyer from a business advertising a sale on guns. All sorts of guns – hunting rifles, hand guns, automatic weaponry. I reacted viscerally – I don’t like guns. This isn’t even the flyer from my mailbox. Mine was immediately thrown in the recycling which was picked up before I realized I wanted it back for this sermon – this is from a friend. This is one of the ways we learn war.
I was a chaplain intern – the first step in the extra training and education I received to be a professional chaplain – at a downtown St. Louis trauma center. St. Louis is a violent city, the result of decades of racist policies that have created intractable poverty and fed the violence. And every night I was on-call, I spent nearly the whole night in the emergency department while victims of gun violence were brought in. One after another, after another. Some lived, most died. And it was my job to go into a small room off to the side to tell the mother’s of, mostly, young men, that their child had been killed. Sometimes I would have to leave that small room and go to the one down the hall because another mother was sitting there, waiting to hear if her child had lived or died. And if I walked into the room, it was always because they had died. That was my job each night I was working, and many of the days as well. I quickly lost track of how many times I had to do that. But it was so many times that the faces have merged into one fuzzy image, with all the features blurred but the eyes – all of the eyes were the same.
I don’t talk about that very often. I rarely, if ever, share the stories of my time as a trauma chaplain, or in fact most of the stories from my entire chaplaincy career. People don’t like to hear them. But I tell you today because when I looked at the flyer in my mailbox, all I saw there was the very same weapons used to kill the children of those parents. They were being advertised to me, on sale. A tool, created to kill, being sold at a discount. As if the lives one of these guns may take is on sale too.
That is how we learn war. It has been advertised and sold to us. It is sold to us as entertainment in film and television and books. The fictionalized images of war are alongside the real images of war – and they become so blurred, we begin to feel numb. The sacredness of life, the spark of God that we all carry within us, the face of God we all reflect – the gift of life given to all of God’s creation is blurred and its cry is drowned out by the machinery of war. And leaders of people see their people as tools of combat, see land as something that can be owned, and see the children of mother’s as targets. And we let someone else walk into a small room to look into the eyes of parent and them that their child is another statistic on a causality list. That is how we learn war.
But you know what else is coming to a mailbox near you quite soon, if it hasn’t already arrived? It will be a post card from our local Habitat from Humanity looking for people who need some maintenance work done on their homes. It is part of this summer’s Rock the Block – a neighborhood initiative Winona will be doing the first weekend of August. People can sign-up up to have some repairs made to their homes, or yard work done, or whatever they may need to make their home just a little bit more safe and beautiful. And then on one extraordinary day, volunteers from across the city will fan out and will do all of those repairs. But, that is just one part of the weekend. After a day of building and creating and working together as neighbors, everyone, everyone – whether their home was worked on, or they were one of the workers, or they are a neighbor to a home that was worked on, or they are a neighbor to one of the workers – anyone and everyone will be invited to a block party where nobody knows who did what – but we gather with good food in a celebration that creates and strengthens community. We will laugh and learn and eat and dance and see a stranger as a neighbor and create new friendships and see the face of God shining just a bit brighter.
And alongside the work on homes that will be done – public murals will be painted and educational opportunities for renters will be offered so they know their rights. And the people of this city will have a chance to come together in their common humanity, look into the eyes of one another and see in them a reflection not of death but of life. And that is how Isaiah’s prophecy begins to be fulfilled. We will put down the tools of destruction and pick up the tools of creation. We will see people as perfect reflections of God – not as targets. We will share a meal and hear each other’s stories. We will take pride in what we have accomplished together. And that is how we will begin to learn war no more.
I should say, in full disclosure, that the newly formed Interfaith Committee of Habitat for Humanity is the one planning and running the Rock the Block weekend in August. And I am one of the co-leaders of that Interfaith Committee – so, you will be hearing a lot more about it and I will be coming to you very soon asking for donations of time and money. But, for now, what I really want you to know is that as a group of people came together, across the spectrum of religious expression, our very first discussion was about what we could do to bridge any divides in our community. This idea was a result of that dreaming – we bridge divides by coming together in service and celebration. To make our shared home just a little more beautiful and safe.
And it shall be in coming days,
the mountain of God’s home
shall the highest of the mountains,
and shall be elevated above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go and ascend the mountain of the Holy One of Sinai,
to the home of the God of Jacob, of the line of Rebekah;
that God may teach us God’s ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Holy One from Jerusalem.
4 God shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide justly 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.
5 O house of Jacob, line of Rebekah
come, let us walk
in the light of the Holy One of Old!
Will one weekend of building and celebration in Winona cease all wars? Of course not. Flyers for gun sales will continue to fill our mailboxes, images of war and destruction and death will continue to fill our screens. And parent’s will continue to fear for their children. But maybe, just maybe, for someone in this community a stranger will become a friend. And someone who seemed ‘other’ will be seen as neighbor. And the Kingdom of God will seem just a little more real.
And we don’t have to wait until we are given an invitation in the mailbox. We can begin today. Now. The visions of prophets aren’t impossible, they are the invitations to accept what is possible with the help of God. And you and I can’t stop the war in Ukraine and in all other nations that face constant violence and threat, and far too many cities within our own country. But when will pray, we can pray not to try to get God’s attention – God is with those in paths of war, I promise you. But we can pray that the desire to not learn war any more and instead the desire to learn creation and stewardship and justice and hope will begin to spread. We can do that. And we will do that. We will pray for those in the path of violence, we will pray for those in leadership, we will pray for those who are afraid and tired and wondering if anyone even cares. And we will pray for ourselves. We will pray that we can continue to lean into the promises of God and draw from the well of God’s love for us. And turn the impossible, into the possible.
Let us pray
God of peace, we gather together as a community and turn our thoughts to you. Help us to settle our spirits, if only for a moment, so we may focus on your presence and not on all that which is troubling us in this moment. We turn to you only that you have never and will never turn from us or any of our siblings in this vast creation. We turn to and begin with thanksgiving.
We are thankful for the ways you have inspired people across the generations to work for peace and justice. We are thankful for the ways you have stayed the hands of those considering violence and instead offered them the grace they needed to return to you. We are thankful for those who are standing up to the forces of evil in this world today. We are thankful for the gift of life you have given us all.
O God, it is in this spirit of gratitude that we turn over to you all those prayers deep within our spirits that are causing us pain and fear and grief. We pray for those in the path of war. We pray for those in exodus from their homes. We pray for those people who are used as tools of violence. We pray for those trying to forge peace. We pray for our children, all the children of this world – who need us to keep them safe and love them more than we love greed and power and empire.
God, we sit now in a moment of silence and listen for your still-speaking voice, leading us, comforting us, and whispering what is possible…
God we know prayer does not change you, but it does change us. And we know you rejoice in our prayers and you rejoice in the ways our prayers lead us to action.
God, we pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ – the one who cast a vision of what is possible in this world and for us. Let us follow his example and learn from his teachings always. And we pray in the way he taught us and Christians across this globe by saying together…Our Father…