Texts: Isaiah 2:1-4; Matthew 5:13-16
In nature there is an order to life. Animals know what they are born to do. Birds know how to build a nest; bears know when to find a cave for hibernation; cats know when to bathe themselves and, thankfully, how to use a litter box. It may make us squeamish, but there are natural predator-prey relationships in the animal food chain. Salmon eat insects, plankton, and small fish, and brown bears eat salmon. Creatures know how to behave instinctively. They preserve their species without harming the world they live in. It’s not all sweetness and light, for sure, but there is an order in nature that is truly miraculous. You can imagine that before that final day of creation when humans came along, the creatures of the earth went about doing their thing—crowing, mooing, running, burying, feeding themselves and their offspring in a natural, orderly sort of way.
Then God created humanity and it all fell apart. Certainly our ability to reason and act out of more than instinct is also a miraculous gift. But humans bring chaos to our world, chaos that manifests itself in everything from arguments between individuals to world wars. And unless you work really hard at being a hermit, you can’t avoid encounters with humanity. In our day-to-day lives, people are everywhere. We can’t escape them. Will Willimon, former dean of Duke Chapel, once said that that he worries when he hears seminarians say they want to work in a church because they “really love people.” His standard response is: “Have you actually met any of these people?”
Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor is on the same wavelength. A line in the Episcopal baptismal liturgy says, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Taylor says that part always forces her to stifle a protest. “How could I possibly seek and serve Christ in all persons? Did the author of the liturgy have any idea how many hungry, needy, angry, manipulative, deeply ill people I see in the course of a week?” She goes on to say that her most frequent encounters with God have occurred in nature. Many of us know what she means. Beaches, mountains, forests are all places where we feel especially close to the divine. In a wonderful book about pastoral ministry, Martin Copenhaver quips that these settings we tend to describe as “peaceful” are invariably places with few, if any, people.
On this Peace Sunday, we have to be honest and admit that we humans are the problem. It’s not the creatures or the mountains or the rivers that have spoiled our planet. Our constant warring with each other is not the fault of the oil flowing in the Middle East or the diamonds buried in Africa or the natural gas that lies beneath the United States. The problem is the people who fight over them.
Our text in Isaiah chapter 2 contains a magnificent prophecy of peace. We know it well. We long for swords to be turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. We await the time when weapons of war will become tools of agriculture. But how do we get there? While I don’t have a full answer to this question, I do know this: going away to a quiet place in nature may feed our souls, and that’s important; but eventually we have to return to face the people in our lives and in our community. So I want to challenge all of us to do two things that may move us closer to peace.
The first is to turn a sword into a plowshare in at least one relationship. There are so many small conflicts that prevent our lives and our world from being peaceful at work, at school, at church, in our neighborhoods, and in our most intimate relationships. We may not describe what is going on as a “war,” but we are often engaged in skirmishes that tear down rather than build up. We may not be lobbing grenades at each other, but silence can be a very powerful and hurtful weapon. Transforming relationships isn’t easy, but Jesus points us in the right direction.
Our gospel text for today is that portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus describes his listeners as salt and light. You are the salt of the earth, he proclaims. The purpose of salt is to give flavor and preserve, and if it doesn’t do that, it is worthless. You are the light of the world. The light’s purpose is to illuminate, to help people to see. If you hide it under a bushel, its value is lost. You can be salt and light if you choose to be, he seems to say. Both are gifts to a chaotic world.
This morning I want to suggest that even when we are salt and light, we still find ways to fight with each other because some of us are more like salt and some more like light. Long before the development of psychology and personality studies, Jesus seems to have named two different personality types in this passage. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a questionnaire designed to measure psychological preferences. Answers to the questions indicate where you fall in four different areas of preference. The test doesn’t measure ability, but rather how we tend to perceive the world and make decisions. I’m not saying that understanding personality types is a magic solution. But it is a very useful tool for understanding your own behavior and that of others.
One important area measured by the Myers-Briggs is how people gather information, including how new information is understood and interpreted. An individual who prefers sensing is likely to trust information in the present, tangible, and concrete; information that can be understood by the five senses. He tends to distrust hunches, which seem to come “out of nowhere,” and looks for details and facts. For sensors, the meaning is in the data. Let’s call these the salt people. On the other hand, someone who prefers intuition trusts information that is more abstract or theoretical. She is typically more interested in future possibilities. Intuitives tend to trust those flashes of insight that seem to bubble up from the unconscious mind. We could call them light people. Sensors and intuitives often differ in work styles as well. Sensors need solutions to be workable, while Intuitives want the door left open for growth and improvement.
My sister was trained to use the Myers-Briggs and found it very helpful in her corporate coaching business. Large companies would hire her to help them figure out why a competent, highly-paid employee wasn’t getting along with others in the office. Frequently, she found that her client was a different personality type than his or her co-workers. Either the client was into the big picture while the boss or co-workers wanted the details, or vice versa. Rather than recognizing the differences among group members in how they gathered information, their differences turned into conflicts, in some cases very serious ones that put the client’s job and livelihood at risk. If you need detailed instructions and your supervisor continues to give vague directions every time, it is hard not to get frustrated. Eventually you may decide that your boss is intentionally confusing you so you won’t be successful. It happens a lot in the workplace and the same thing happens in churches. I once worked with a strong visionary pastor in a church full of retired government bureaucrats. He was light and they were salt. At every congregational meeting he would launch into his grand vision and their eyes would glaze over. Over time, the distance between them grew and the conflict heightened.
This is just one example of how differences among us turn into conflicts. And it’s a shame because we need both the grand visionaries and the detail people to actually bring it about. So when I hear Jesus telling his listeners they are salt and light, I am reminded that we are different, and that is a good thing. These differences can be recognized and celebrated, or they can be sources of conflict—in churches, in families, in virtually any relationship. Certainly some conflicts are caused by truly bad behavior. But many times they are the product of the different ways we process and interpret our world. In a few weeks, we will have an opportunity to learn how to address conflict creatively. Dan Buttry, global peace consultant for American Baptist Churches, USA will be here on February 18-19 to teach us how to transform our disagreements into positive and constructive experiences. I hope many of you will join us for this wonderful opportunity to learn new peacemaking skills. If we want to be peacemakers, we have to address the small conflicts that are part of our daily lives. Peacemaking, like charity, begins at home.
My second challenge is this: If we want to be peacemakers, you and I have to better understand the degree to which we are citizens of an American Empire. We must grow in our understanding of how our lifestyles work against our desire for peace.
Author and Army Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich has written a strong indictment of American domestic and foreign policy in his 2008 book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. It begins with a verse from Second Kings, Chapter 20: Set thine house in order. (v.1) In a detailed analysis of how our government operates in relation to its citizens and the rest of the world, Bacevich argues that freedom is the altar at which Americans worship regardless of their religious persuasion, and that, for us, freedom has become synonymous with abundance. Indeed since 9/11, war has become a permanent condition for the U.S. in our attempt to expand and protect our empire. “In an earlier age,” he writes, “Americans saw empire as the antithesis of freedom.” Today, however, empire has become a prerequisite of freedom because we expect the world to accommodate our self-indulgent American way of life. Our wars are now as much about preserving our consumptive habits as they are about bringing freedom to others. In fact, if there were one word to describe our 21st century American identity, he argues, it would be more. Says Bacevich, “the ethic of self-gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life.”
One example he offers is the statement of Donald Rumsfeld shortly after 9/11 reflecting the conviction that dominance in the Persian Gulf was imperative. “We have two choices,” Rumsfeld said. “Either we change the way we live, or we must change the way they live. We choose the latter.” Freedom then became further defined by access to large quantities of cheap oil. In the U.S., Bacevich asserts, the pursuit of freedom in an age of consumerism has made us dependent on imported goods, imported oil, and credit. Reflecting this reality, a 2006 New York Times Magazine article posed the question, “Is freedom just another word for many things to buy?” It is one thing for Egyptians who live under an oppressive regime to demand jobs or free speech and press in the name of freedom. It is quite another thing for Americans to equate freedom with having what we want when we want it as we consume one-third of the world’s resources with only 5% of the world’s population.
This author’s analysis is a scathing critique of our government and our people. I am sure others would draw some different conclusions. But increasingly, thoughtful people, especially people of faith, are reminding us that our nation is neither exceptional nor omnipotent. They dare to say that protecting American interests – pursuing “empire” – is really shoring up our consumerism, which is killing us and our planet, killing God’s creation. Half a century ago Reinhold Neibuhr said it well: “To the end of history social orders will probably destroy themselves in the effort to prove that they are indestructible.”
The time has come to educate ourselves and be honest about our status as citizens of an empire. We must recognize that our addiction to stuff is directly connected to issues of war and peace and the damage we are doing to our planet. We can’t separate them, nor can we pretend that if we could just get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, our problems would be solved. Ending those wars is crucial, but it is only one step toward a peaceful future. We have to change for peace to come. We have to consider the needs of the world as much as we do our own desires.
At our Middle East Prayer Service on January 4, Linda and Bob Rodriguez presented me with a beautiful gift, the candleholder you see pictured on the front of your worship guide. It’s on the communion table this morning and features a dove carved from brass. But this treasure is not just a candlestick. The brass used to make it came from a bomb casing left on the ground in war-torn Cambodia. As you may remember, the Khmer Rouge regime ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 following the Vietnam War. Through careful mapping of mass graves, officials estimate that nearly 1,400,000 people were killed and nearly another million died from starvation and disease during this reign of terror in a country of only 8 million.
So this morning as we think about the conflicts in our personal lives and in the world, a bomb casing that once lay on the killing fields of Cambodia sits on our communion table. It is here in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a symbol of peace. With care and skill, the artisans of Cambodia have literally turned a sword into a plowshare, a bomb casing into a candlestick. Our call is to do the same in our lives and in our world. We must find ways to address our personal conflicts creatively. And we must become willing to explore what it means to be citizens of an empire that looks all too much like Babylon or Rome.
Friends, earth’s creatures can’t clean up the mess we have made. Humanity got us where we are and humanity has to change if peace is to become a reality. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus did not challenge us to try harder to be salt and light, but named us as bearers of salt and light for the world. We already have what we need to preserve what is good and point to a different future. Isaiah described that future for us: weapons of war will become instruments we can use to feed a hungry world. Our goal is to help usher in the commonwealth of God. Any small movement in the direction of peace with justice is a sign of God’s presence among us. The transformation required of us is radical. But transformative action is not beyond the reach of people who are created in the image of a loving, transformative God.