Plow Peace

Book of Isaiah 2:1-5

November 27, 2022: Advent I

The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT

Here it is, the first Sunday in Advent. Again.
Just like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, here we are beginning our story, again. Our same age-old story, in a new year, presumably in a new way, and yet, it is not a new story, not even close. For some of us, Advent could easily feel like a rut, like a broken record,
like Spotify stuck on repeat until we have heard that same old song…enough already.

Every year we hear the promise of peace on earth.
But every year we wait with joyous expectancy for a gift that continues to elude us. Where is the peace on earth already?
Are we that foolish? Or is God that untrustworthy?
How can it be that God has come to earth, every Christmas for over 2 millenia, And still we wait. Still no peace on earth.

This morning’s first reading from the Book of Isaiah puts the promise in black and white. We read it every three years in this season of Advent.
And it proclaims, in no uncertain terms, the coming of said peace on earth.

All of the people will come to the mountain of God.
And 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.
And we will all walk in the light of the Lord!

It’s a lovely dream. But it’s not true….at least not yet.
Just ask the good folks of Ukraine. Peace has not yet graced our earth.

And yet, I think I know that peace of which Isaiah speaks.
It’s not an entirely foreign concept. Peace on earth.

This very morning, as I was finishing this sermon, I watched the night sky give way to the most amazing morning light. The most gorgeous pink horizon began to lift above the bare tree tops across my back yard. And I thought, if this sight is not peace on earth, I don’t know what is.
And I started to wonder about truth, the accuracy of this sermon.

Maybe there is a different way of understanding peace on earth. Maybe it’s just not ….not…..manifested in the way we expect. Because I think we are waiting for some switch to be flipped.

For the violence and the hatred and the forces of domination and oppression and fragmentation That make this world so violent, to just stop. On a dime. All at once.
And then, out of the blue there will be peace….on the whole earth.
Everywhere. No exceptions.

I think we think that when peace finally does come to earth,
humanity will instantaneously become…..all-loving and kind and generous and respectful. Like the Manchurian Candidate.
God will utter a divine word, and peace will just spread like jam over the whole earth.

But I am thinking that that is not how this swords into ploughsahres thing works.
I am thinking it might work the way Advent works.
Which would be why this reading shows up in Advent rather than Eastertide where really belongs, in my humble opinion. Because Advent, in the true meaning of the word, is the only possible context. For this scenario put forth by our prophet Isaiah.

Advent is from the Latin adventus. And adventus in Latin is a very particular verb form. It is a perfect passive participle.
We don’t have this form in English.
But in Latin, the perfect passive participle has a somewhat contradictory meaning.

The perfect passive part denotes something which has already happened. But the participle part is something that is happening as we speak
and continues to happen into the future.
So, Advent, from the perfect passive participle adventus, is:

1)  something that is happening now and is ongoing.

2)  and also something that has already happened.

We can’t get our arms around Advent if we are thinking in a linear way.
If we are waiting for a switcxh to flip on or off.
We can’t get our arms around the coming of God if we move from start to finish,
from beginning to ending.
The very meaning of Advent tells us that we can’t put one foot in front of the other and get to God. Advnet tells us that we have to live and work spatially rather than chronologically.
Because God’s Chronos…God’s time, is not linear.

It is all around us and as we live and breathe, and still to come as we hope and dream.
If you ask me, the very concept of Advent is the perfect gift for Christmas.
And maybe Advent is not the time of waiting, but the space and place in which we wait. And that means that Advent is not really about waiting in time, but about filling our time.

I think if we hear this passage from Isaiah as a perfect passive participle we may be on to something.

Because Isaiah himself is writing this passage in the middle of a raging war.
He talks about beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks as though it has already happened. And yet Isaiah could have been writing in President Zelkensky’s foxhole
as Russian missiles explode around him.
But Isaiah is insistent that our instruments of violence will be transformed into instruments
of peace….and not just peace…..prosperity.
They will be transformed into Ploughshares (instruments of employment)
and pruning hooks (instruments of growth).
A transformation from war, not just to not-war, but to creative work.
Not just to peace, but productivity. Not just passivity, but actively planting.

And I got to thinking, maybe we have the process out of order.
Maybe war does not become peace and then peace becomes prosperity.
Maybe the antidote to war is not peace (which would take a miracle from God),
but work (which is well within our human purview).
Peace may still be the result.
But maybe, short of a miracle, work is the agent of transformation.
Swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
That sounds and feels right to me.
Because when I’m working, when I am constructive, I am much less likely to be destructive. Maybe the answer to our broken world is not peace but engaging employment.

You might have heard of Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest whose memoir is called Tattoos on the Heart. It chronicles his work in Los Angeles with some of the most violent gang members in….anywhere. This year is the 30th anniversary of his work of changing swords into ploughshares.
His organization could have been called Isaiah Inc. But he called it Homeboy Industries.

The mission is to respond to gang violence in the streets of Los Angeles by putting some of the most incorrigible gang members in that city to productive work.
Fr. Boyle writes: “Homeboy Industries seeks to improve and transform the lives of gang members by employing them at one of the Homeboy businesses, which include a Homeboy Bakery and Home Girl Café, a silkscreen and embroidery shop, among others. Homeboy Industries also provides support services including therapy, GED classes, and tattoo removal…”1 And more planting and growing endeavors.

In the beginning, Fr. Boyle says he actively worked to draft peace agreements and ceasefires among warring gangs. But none of those endeavors worked. At all.
Because, he says, peace-making agreements require that a conflict be solved.

But there is no actual conflict in the realm of in gang warfare.
There is plenty of violence, but it has no reasonable foundation to be reconciled.
Fr. Boyle explains “It’s about a lethal absence of hope. It’s about kids who can’t imagine a future for themselves. It’s about kids who aren’t seeking anything when they join a gang.” They are no seeking, they are fleeing. “They’re always fleeing something,” he says.
They are kids who have no productive focus for their lives.

And this description jives with what we know about recruitment for all gang-style warfare, especially terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Shabbab and others.
The perpetrators are first and foremost grossly under-employed.
And so, when Homeboy Industries first started, it was mostly an employment referral agency. The slogan on its T-shirts still reads, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

And Homeboy Industries has been proving that slogan to be true for three decades.
Today, Homeboy Industries employs roughly 250 ex-gang members a year, most of whom have been to prison. And the organization has a 75-percent retention rate,
which means 75 percent of the people with whom they work, do not return to prison.2
They have permanently turned their swords into ploughshares.

For that 75%, peace has come on earth. Swords into ploughshares into peace.

This is how peace comes to earth.
But the peace is not something that has happened once and for all.
Just like Advent, it has happened and it must keep happening.

We must keep plowing and planting and pruning. And by getting to work we will get to peace.

Fr. Boyle’s business strategy hangs on his belief that:
“The role of people on earth is to try to imitate the kind of God they believe in.”
If we believe in a God that is ever creative, ever creating, the greatest gardener of all time! Then plowing and planting and pruning are the way.

As Matthew says in this morning’s Gospel reading, the way to be ready when the Son of Humanity comes again is to keep our eyes on our work before us.
Forget the signs and the prophesies. Forget the wishful thinking.
Forget waiting patiently for the switch to flip.

Instead, let us drop to our knees in God’s garden and sow peace for the harvest!

As I was on my way to church this morning, a friend of mine, Rick Cinami, sent me a text. I don’t think I’ve ever received a text from Rick on Sunday morning, so when I saw his name come up on my phone, I was bit a worried.

I opened it immediately and this is what I saw.

“Peace on Earth”

Just in case the morning sky outside my own window was not enough to get it through my think head and heart, God, in God’s infinite wisdom, resorted to social media.
And put my peace on earth in a text from a friend who was thinking of me and my parish at 6am. Enough to stop his truck and take a picture. And send it with his best wishes for a lovely day.
This day which God has made and laced with sweet peace in places where we least expect to find it.

God is good. All the time.

All the time. God is good.

And peace is here all over God’s earth!


© November 2022, The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw

[1] On Being with Krista Tippett, April 2, 2015

[2] ON Being blog, by Mary Desmond, Jesuit Preist Takes LA Gang Members and Provides Jobs and Hope with Homeboy Industries. This article appears courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily.

[3] Mary Desmond article.

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