November 18, 2018 Sermon

“Peace and Possibilities”                                                                Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4
Rev. Sean Weston                                                                                                                           
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
November 18, 2018

I’d like to share a story with you, entitled Wangari’s Trees of Peace. The story is by Jeanette Winters and tells the story of a peacemaker in Kenya named Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. It’s an illustrated book for children, but it speaks to us all. The pictures will be shown on the screens.

The tree, of course, is a symbol of peace. As the landscape was violently destroyed, the trees witnessed to the power of life. A few things about this story really stand out to me, especially in light of the story we heard in scripture today and God’s vision for peace.

In both stories an incredible amount of destruction is taking place. In Kenya it’s the destruction of so-called “development.” Following the lead of the United States and Europe, God’s creation is being destroyed around the world for the sake of what we think is best for us humans. In ancient Jerusalem, it was the total destruction of 46 Judean cities by the Assyrian empire fighting a senseless war. The Assyrian King says it all in his own records – now on display at the University of Chicago: Jerusalem was surrounded “like a caged bird.”

In both stories attempts to stop further destruction were met with laughter and taunting by men in power. In Kenya, Wangari and the women she lead were laughed at by men who said they couldn’t successfully plant trees. Then once they were successful and she became even more brave, brave enough to stand in the way of more destructive “development,” men in power put her in jail. In ancient Jerusalem, the king’s general taunts the people, saying their God was powerless to save them. He claimed they could have a good life, if they surrendered.

And, in both stories, the people being laughed at chose hope in the face of power’s laughter. Even while jailed, more and more people took Wangari’s lead and replenished the land. When the King thought all was lost, the prophet Isaiah was calm and resolute: Jerusalem will not be taken. Isaiah knew that the King’s offer of peace was no true peace. God had given him an image of true peace: of nations together, of weapons turned into tools for farming, of nations learning war no more. The people could trust this God.

Wangari didn’t know what would happen when she started planting trees. Isaiah didn’t have proof that God would save Jerusalem. But in both places, life and not destruction had the last word.

That doesn’t mean the destruction ended once and for all. God’s creation is still being destroyed. And Jerusalem was still dominated by powerful neighbors, and would fall in about another hundred years to another powerful empire. But in those place, in those moments, in those times, God’s vision of peace showed itself. Ideas about what was possible got bigger: “Maybe things don’t have to be like this. Maybe things can be better.”

In the fall of 2013, I led a group from my campus ministry to a vigil at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, George. This Department of Defense facility – which congress claimed they closed in 2000 after changing its name – spent decades training Latin American military leaders. Some of you might have made some connections with Lyonsville’s history: In the 1980s this church’s pastor, Tom Nielsen, began a ministry to refugees from Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico. Those refugees were fleeing a war executed by graduates of this School. Students there were taught methods of torture and execution and have gone on to commit atrocious war crimes, including genocide. Hence Congress changing the name.

After six Jesuit priests were murdered in El Salvador by graduate of the School, a priest started an annual vigil at the school on the anniversary of the massacre. As thousands of us converged at the gates, we began singing the song inspired by Isaiah’s vision: “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”:

“I ain’t gonna study war no more. Ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

As I sang, I looked at my surroundings. We were kept in a clear protest zone, surrounded by heavily armed officers, with military helicopters flying overhead. And I noticed an officer singing along with us:

“I ain’t gonna study war no more. Ain’t gonna study war no more, I ain’t gonna study war no more.”

We made eye contact, and just for a moment the divide between us fell away. Then he looked down and stopped singing. Soon enough he joined the other officers – most of whom laughed instead of singing with us.

But in that moment, just in that moment, I got a glimpse of what is possible. For just a moment, God’s vision of peace was right at hand. I could see it, feel it. And that same vision has been at hand through history, when a Kenyan woman planted trees of peace that replenished the land, when a small city called Jerusalem was held miraculously against those wielding weapons of destruction. In those moments and so many more, we see what is truly possible with God, if we can learn to trust, and follow, and plant seeds of peace wherever we can.

And so I wonder, what seeds can you plan in your life? What small steps can you make to bring peace to your community? What steps can we take, trusting God to see us through? Despite what the Assyrian general said so long ago, our God can be trusted. Peace – true peace – is possible if we dare to believe it.