This is a Remembrance Day Sermon based on Micah 4:1-5. It’s based around the idea of changing swords into ploughshares.
I struggle every year with Remembrance Day. I remember with despair all the people who have died in wars and I wonder why, when there are still wars going on. It seems to me like a vicious circle. We have armies because there is war in the world and we feel a need to protect ourselves. We need to protect ourselves because there are armies in the world who would do harm to us and others.
For most of us war is something that happens somewhere else and when we are engaged in war we see ourselves as Canadians rescuing other people from terrorism and unjust leaders. And yet the reality is that war always breaks people. People leave home knowing and trusting that they are going to save and encourage others and come home, if they come home, broken in body, mind and spirit. And they leave behind in another place the brokenness of lives they couldn’t save.
The prophets are all very good at naming the reality. In Micah’s time the reality is that the community has evil rulers and lying prophets. Israel had been captured by the Assyrians and Judah was paying tax to them. Micah was an ordinary person. He had no status that would get him in to see the king or other leaders. He came from the people and he preached to the people. Barbara Essex describes the situation this way: “The people believe that they can do anything they want because God promised an eternal dynasty to David’s family; that is, there will always be a descendant of David in charge in Judah. Further, the people believe that Judah will always stand as an independent nation because God dwells in the capital city of Jerusalem. Surely, God will not let anyone or anything destroy the divine residence. The people and their leaders live with arrogance and believe their transgressions will be forgiven, that God will never forsake them.” This is the reality that Micah names.
And in Canada we talk about how lucky we are to live in a free country. We assume that this will always be the case. And yet we have unjust leaders, we have forgotten God’s commandment to love our neighbour. When violence touches our community we blame “those people”: the immigrants, the “Indians” and other riffraff. If they would either go away and quit bothering us or become like us there wouldn’t be a problem. But the prophets, including Micah, know something different. They know how to dream. It isn’t a dream where everyone becomes the same. It isn’t a dream where those with wealth and power are left alone to do whatever they want.
It is a dream of something fundamentally different . . . In a perfect world . . . This could be one of our gifts to the world. The ability to dream and to imagine is part of the gift of faith. Unless we imagine something different we are stuck with what is. Scripture—particularly the prophets—tells us what the reality of the situation is and then dares to imagine something different.
It isn’t intended as a day dream that simply stays in our head as wishful thinking but a dream that gets lived out in our reality every day.
One of the first things we need to do is learn God’s ways. There are many ways of phrasing this. One of the best known comes from the gospels: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself. It seems like such a basic thing but it is so hard to do. Naim Stifan Ateek, a Palestinian theologian, writes that to live with righteousness is to “live compassionately in the midst of the complexities of social and political life, seeking God’s loving presence for our neighbours as well as ourselves. Such living implies a true understanding of the common humanity of all people and God’s justice and mercy as extended to all. Seeking compassion for those that we know and that live next to us and those that we don’t know whether they are here in Canada or in another part of the world.
All people are capable of compassion. As Christians, this sense of compassion has been instilled us through teaching and action. Our responsibility is to encourage compassion for all people and creation even when our instinct is to push away, to close out, to blame, and to look away. Our faith calls us back again to loving our neighbour.
Micah imagines a world where swords are turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Ploughshares and pruning hooks represent the human ability to cultivate the earth both for food and for beauty. Over a trillion dollars are spent every year around the world on creating better, more efficient weapons to destroy life but what would happen if that same money was used instead to encourage and nurture life? And we can say that we need to protect ourselves but how much of the threat that requires an armed response is real and how much is imagined? Does it start by governments getting rid of armies or does it start with communities imagining different responses to violence? Maybe instead of simply putting people who have committed violence in jail and forgetting about them we need to ask questions: difficult questions of them, of ourselves and our communities. As we seek answers to these questions we will find many more questions and many actions that require our attention. Our courage lies not in locking people away but in engaging with them.
One of the things we may find in seeking answers to these questions is that dignity has been lost somewhere along the way: maybe in this generation, maybe in a previous generation. All of us need places where we know we belong, where we know we are safe to be ourselves. In the Hebrew scriptures when people have their own vine and their own fig tree the community is safe. There is stability, there is food, shelter, water. When the vine and fig tree are destroyed there is violence and war. In our own culture the vine and fig are not central but we can certainly understand the concept of having food and shelter, of being safe physically and emotionally and spiritually. When people don’t have adequate access to these basic needs there is a loss of dignity that goes along with that. If you go to the food bank, you get the cheap food that people donate whether you like it or not, you don’t get choice and you can only go at certain times. If you can’t afford rent for a good home or mortgage you live in a tiny room somewhere or you give that up and live on the street.
Many of us who live comfortable middle class lives are afraid when we see people like this—the rifraf – either of the person or what their life represents to us. Our courage lies in looking directly at another person and seeking answers to the difficult questions another person’s life poses for us.
And finally Micah speaks of tolerance. We will walk with our God and be faithful and others will walk with other names for God and be faithful. Peace does not come from eliminating difference but of tolerating and embracing the difference.
Micah is quite specific in what he sees as the building blocks for peace:
- following God, in other words, having love and compassion
- instead of putting resources into war and weapons put our resources of time, energy and money into nurturing life
- ensure that everyone has their basic needs met in ways that build up dignity
- embrace difference and walk faithfully
And here we are at another remembrance day…remembering war, people who returned from war broken, and people who did not return. Our thanks must be followed by our action which works towards eliminating the need for war. Micah imagined a world where there was no need for war. Are we able to imagine it? See it clearly in our mind and live faithfully into the vision that Micah had for the world: a world of compassion, love and safety for all people.
. Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 144.