Advent 1A – November 27, 2022
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham – Advent 1A – November 27, 2022
The Rev. Rachel Endicott
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning, as we start into the anticipatory, waiting time of Advent, we hear from the Prophet Isaiah. In his vision of the days to come, he shares that:
God “shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”
The aspirational words jumped out at me. How I wish we had war no more. How I wish it was simply even swords and spears! And then we could easily melt them down! Some years ago, I was in the UK taking a tour of a castle – it may have been Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, I can’t quite remember now. What I do remember, though, is how the guide talked about the proliferation of and development of weapons of destruction. He showed how the markings on the walls went from low-down barely visible scratches of pikes and hand-held instruments to higher markings from rocks from trebuchets (those devices that sling projectiles up and over walls) to significant pitting all over the walls from cannonballs.
As I go back in history, even as someone who has not studied war, I think of how spears got turned from being used by the hunter-gatherers to kill animals to being turned upon one another. Spears, slingshots, and bows and arrows came to be used for maiming and killing enemies. And over the centuries, guns and cannons were invented and refined, so faster, quicker, more destructive weapons were devised. And the progression continued: purveyors of war developed mines, bombs, and missiles – even more recently drones. And on and on.
And at 5:30 am on July 16, 1945, “The world's first nuclear explosion occurred … when a plutonium implosion device was tested at a site located 210 miles south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the barren plains of the Alamogordo Bombing Range, known as the Jornada del Muerto. Inspired by the poetry of John Donne [ironically an Anglican priest and poet of the 17th Century], J. Robert Oppenheimer code-named the test "Trinity." Hoisted atop a 100-foot tower, the plutonium device, or "Gadget," detonated …over the New Mexico desert, releasing 18.6 kilotons of power, instantly vaporizing the tower and turning the surrounding asphalt and sand into green glass.”1
And on August 6th and 9th, “The United States detonated two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians…[Possible targets for detonation of the atomic bombs had been] Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. These targets were chosen because they were large urban areas that also held militarily significant facilities… Over the next two to four months, the effects of the atomic bombings killed between 90,000 and 146,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000 and 80,000 people in Nagasaki; roughly half occurred on the first day. For months afterward, many people continued to die from the effects of burns, radiation sickness, and injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition. Though Hiroshima had a sizable military garrison, most of the dead were civilians…[There] is still much debate concerning the ethical and legal justification for the bombings. Supporters believe that the atomic bombings were necessary to bring a swift end to the war with minimal casualties; critics dispute how the Japanese government was brought to surrender, and highlight the moral and ethical implications of nuclear weapons and the deaths caused to civilians.”2
And yet, we yearn to live into the vision of Isaiah that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
But we have indeed done an excellent job at learning war, haven’t we? “Citing growing nuclear risks and unchecked climate dangers, the Doomsday Clock has been moved to two minutes before midnight—its closest point symbolically to total catastrophe since the height of the Cold War.… The last time the iconic symbol stood at two minutes to midnight was 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union successfully tested hydrogen bombs.”3 And aside from the Russian incursion into Ukraine, where the concern over nuclear devastation is real, we have a whole slew of other wars going on including: Afghanistan, Columbia, Iraq, Sudan and Syria to name a few. And we have posturing towards war elsewhere: North Korea towards its neighbors and China regarding Taiwan are the first couple that immediately come to mind.
As Christians, I would hope that we all yearn for a time when war will indeed cease and implements of war can be remade into life-giving implements. But meanwhile, Christians (and others) have wrestled with the nature of war. Some Christians have taken the tack of codifying what is “acceptable” in war, generally keeping the focus on military opponents and – as much as possible – keeping civilians safe. So, we have “just war” theory.
A number of Christians, especially Mennonites and other Anabaptist denominations like the Amish and Church of the Brethren along with the Quakers are known for their strongly-held pacifist beliefs, arguing that Jesus commanded his followers to love one another, even our enemies, and that these teachings – by definition – demand that we only use non-violent behavior because that is what Jesus models and advocates for.
The Anglican communion has repudiated war, specifically at the “Lambeth Conference [of] 1930 [at which] Resolution 25 declares that "The Conference affirms that war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ."… The 1948, 1958 and 1968 conferences re-ratified this position.”4
And to bring it closer to home, one of our saints in our Episcopal Church’s collection of saints was a staunch pacifist. Bishop Paul Jones was born in 1880 in Pennsylvania and died in 1941. After going to Yale and the Episcopal Divinity School, he accepted a call to serve in what was then the Missionary District of Utah. In 1914, Jones was elected Bishop, just as World War I was really beginning. In 1917, he expressed his belief that “war is unchristian” at a meeting of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Los Angeles.5 The reaction to the speech caused for a call for him to resign, although he argued that he had a right to object to war on grounds of faith and conscience. In 1918, under pressure he resigned as Bishop of Utah, though continued a ministry within the Church dedicated to peace and conscience until his death 23 years later. The Collect for his saint’s day reminds us that Christ is the Prince of Peace.
And yet, in the here and now, we still continue to hope and pray for an end to war, when we can beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Recently I’ve heard more people acknowledge that the Russian-Ukranian war affects them personally. And indeed it does. The world is interconnected in so many ways. Our economies are intertwined. Our friendships span country boundaries. And most of all, the people of God are interconnected as children of God wherever they may be.
So, pray. Pray mightily. Pray consistently. Pray with fervor. Pray that hearts may be changed. Pray that those negotiating or working toward peace may be given sustenance and grace as they advocate for peace. Pray for civilians who are endangered simply by the location of their homes and work. Pray that they can be kept from harm. Pray that those who are aggressors will have a change of heart, that they can step back from the edge.
And although we might not individually be able to change the outcome of war being waged thousands of miles away, we can indeed do something on our own doorsteps. Peace starts at home. We can learn and teach non-violent ways of communicating with others. We can work in our families and local areas to resolve conflicts in constructive and non-violent ways.
And whatever else, we hold hope – as did Isaiah. We look forward – as did Isaiah. We prepare to go up to the Lord’s house where there will be peace. And always, always, we continue to pray for peace…
5 Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2010, p. 560.