Swords and plowshares

Good morning, Friends!

This weekend is Memorial Day, which for a lot of people is just another 3-day weekend for people to get their garden planted, or go to the lake, or shop for summer clothes. The school year is almost over, and it’s the beginning of summer!

Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as it used to be called) was started in the years after the American Civil War. It was a solemn day to remember all the people who died, in a war which claimed the biggest proportion of casualties in our nation’s entire history.

All wars are bad. Most people who have actually been in a war will tell you that. One of the most famous and successful generals in the Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman, was the one who famously said, “War is hell. . .”

One out of seven men in the North wound up serving in the military; in the South it was one out of five. 30% of the soldiers who enlisted, died.

Overall, 2% of the population – one out of fifty – died in the war – in battle, or from wounds, disease or starvation. If you multiplied those percentages out into today’s population, the equivalent of 7 million people died.

There was not a town or a village which didn’t lose people. There was not a city in the whole country which didn’t lose hundreds, if not thousands. The grieving went on for decades. Many families never recovered.

Here in the South, the economy was shattered. At the end of the war, Confederate money was worthless. Cash simply didn’t exist, and much of this area went back to a barter economy. Schools and factories had been destroyed. Farms and farmhouses were burned to the ground. Many of the Southern states were still economically depressed, 80 years later.

Slavery and racial inequality, which were the main causes of the war, have persisted and dragged us down, to this very day. The hatred which created the climate for the Civil War, has taken on new life and fresh energy, and is still being used by politicians and hate-mongers to gain advantage.

Memorial Day should be a time for us to remember and reflect on all these things. We should ask ourselves why this war, this national disaster, took place. And we should ask ourselves if we have learned anything, or changed anything to prevent such disaster from taking place, ever again.

Our Scripture today is from one of the prophets of the Old Testament, who talks about war and peace, and gives us some thoughts to apply to our world today.

In days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.

Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away. 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.

But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken

 – Micah 4:1-4

Today’s Scripture is one of the many places in the Bible where God’s vision of peace is held up for us to consider. It wasn’t given to a nation which was strong and powerful. The days when Israel was a major power were already ancient history when Micah spoke. Israel was broken, and divided into two nations, which were often at each others’ throats.

Micah starts out by saying that God has come out of God’s holy place. God isn’t going to stay up in heaven any more, or be locked up in the temple, or be hiding in any kind of church or shrine or museum.

“The Lord is coming out of his place,” it says, “and will come down and stomp down all the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under him, and the valleys will burst open like wax near the fire. . .all this is because Jacob [the northern half of the country] has revolted against God and because Israel [the southern half of the country] has sinned.” (Micah 1:3-5)

Micah goes on to spend entire chapters describing exactly what the north and the south had done wrong. He talks about rich people – the 1% of his day – who steal the land and homes of the poor, so that the poor have nothing of the rich and beautiful inheritance which was originally given to them by God. (Micah 2:1-2)

That process is well underway in our country today. Millions of people lost their homes during the Great Recession. Whole neighborhoods have been gutted, and many of our young people have no hope of ever owning their own home.

Micah talks about the rulers of the country, who are supposed to uphold justice. He says, “You hate good and you love evil; you tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; you eat the flesh of my people and flay them and break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a caldron. . .” (Micah 3:1-3)

Pretty graphic!

Micah has harsh words for all the leaders of the country – for religious leaders who preach falsely and say things which God has never said, for civic leaders who pervert justice, for educational leaders who only teach for money.

Because of all this, Micah says, God’s Promised Land will be plowed under. God’s holy city will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of God’s temple will go back to being an uninhabited forest. (Micah 3:12)

Then we get to this morning’s scripture – the part we all love to quote. Just remember that this is the vision of a broken people, a society which admits its mistakes and wants to come back to God.

This isn’t the vision of a successful nation. It’s the vision of a nation which knows that it has royally screwed up, and of a nation which wants with all it’s heart to give up the things it’s done wrong and wants to start over from the beginning.

“The mountain of God’s house is the highest place for us now. Let us turn to God, so that God may teach us God’s ways of doing things, and so that we can walk in God’s paths, not the old, twisted, sinful ways we’re so used to. We know that the old ways cause death. We want to live. And that means we need to re-build society, from the ground up.”
That’s what Micah says.

God will judge between peoples – that means that God will decide on the basis of what is right and fair and just. If old laws are protecting injustice and creating poverty, then God will judge and uproot things on behalf of the poor. It says that God will arbitrate between nations – that means there’s going to be change, there’s going to be giving and taking and adjustment, and God is going to be the arbitrator.

Then we get to the lines which everybody likes – “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. . .”

That’s not a sentimental vision. Micah is looking at a nation where people are dying in hundreds, every day.

The nation is divided. The rich are getting richer, and the poor have no place to go. People are homeless, hungry, and at war with each other. The laws have nothing to do with justice any more. The prophets aren’t even listening to God. The teachers aren’t teaching what people need to know.

“Swords into plowshares” certainly has a military application. Our country spends more than any nation on earth spends on war and weapons. Re-building society from the ground up probably needs to include reductions in military spending.

But I think Micah’s vision also has civilian applications as well. We spend more on prisons than any other nation on earth. We execute more people than almost anyone else. We are the richest nation in the world, and yet people are locked in poverty for generations, and our leaders defend this system as if it were perfect.

“Swords into plowshares” and “spears into gardening tools” is only part of the change our society needs if we’re going to turn back to God.

In Micah’s vision, each person, each family, each segment of society, will have a place to call their own, a fair share, a portion – in Micah’s words, “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees. . .”

People in our country shouldn’t have to beg and plead for a decent home, or be turned out of their homes when they lose their job.

Did you know that a large percentage of the homeless and the jobless and the mentally ill in our country are veterans? I don’t know how we turn that around – but I don’t think that’s right.

People in our country shouldn’t have to hold demonstrations in order to get decent health care. People shouldn’t need to go to court to get fully-funded schools, or campaign to force the government to provide public safety.

All the prophets are clear that when there is social injustice and poverty, there will be no peace here on earth. Peace will not happen, if justice is an afterthought, or if fair wages take second place to profit.

These are hard words. But I don’t want you to feel that I’m scolding you. I’m pleading with you! Because Christians, and especially Quakers, are supposed to know all these things.

People come here, because they’ve heard rumors about this “Peace of God,” and they want to experience it. People expect us to be the experts in peacemaking and community building.

They want to see the swords which have been turned into peaceful plowshares. They want to hear the hammer ringing, as spears of war and hatred are turned into pruning shears.

People come here, because they’ve heard Jesus talking about peace, and they want to find it – the peace which comes from living generously, from treating each other the way we want to be treated ourselves. They want to see if there really are people who turn the other cheek, who forgive their enemies, who love mercy, and who let go of hurts because they know how much they’ve been forgiven themselves.

People want to experience the “peace that passes all understanding,” that fills our hearts and minds with the life and love of Jesus.

Are we going to tell them, “Nope. Not here! Gotta look someplace else for that!”

Or are we going to dig deep, and build peace on new foundations?

Are we going to make peace? To “make peace” says to me that peace is something physical, tangible – something you can touch and feel and taste. Are we peace makers, or peace fakers?

Jesus himself said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid. . .” (John 14:27)

How can we take that gift of peace, which Christ freely offers us, and share it, and change the world?

Here in this very place, the people of Springfield Friends were once passionate about peace, and passionate about re-building their own lives and the shattered community around them.

I have read the stories of the young Quaker men who left their homes and hid in the mountains rather than take part in the Civil War.

I have read the stories of how people here at Springfield contributed to the effort which built dozens of schools, in communities which had none. Right across the road was the center where books and school supplies were distributed. Here on our grounds, a generation of new teachers were trained for six years every summer.

Just down behind our meetinghouse, a model farm was established, which showed the whole state how agriculture could be re-built. Thousands of people came here every year to learn, to get seed and tools and fertilizer, and to take the knowledge home with them.

People from our meeting helped to establish schools to educate the freed slaves and the children of slaves. Families from our meeting helped to start the furniture industry, which gave employment and brought income to this whole region.

Springfield Friends was a lighthouse, a beacon of hope, a place where people’s faith and love and fellowship were a light on the hill for this community. People came from miles around to be part of our meeting.

I don’t know what we should be doing next, here and. We aren’t very large, and we often feel we don’t have very much to offer. All of us are busy, and we struggle to pay our bills.

I want to remind us, though, that the people who came before us had so much less. Allen Jay estimated that most Quaker families in this area after the Civil War had less than fifty dollars a year in cash income.

But they prayed, they believed in God, and they did what they could. No one can do more than that. They prayed, they trusted, and they worked. Maybe that’s the secret.

They worked for peace. They did what they could. They did the work that was right in front of them. They knew who was leading them. They believed even though they knew they didn’t have enough. And we’re still talking about them, 160 years later.

Go and enjoy your holiday. But take some time, and think about what true peace in our time might look like. And pray for that vision of peace, for us and for our nation, for justice and freedom, to fill our hearts and minds. Amen.

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