“Peace” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is the second Sunday of Advent and a week closer to our celebration of the birth of Jesus. I want to try to set the stage for you with a metaphor, and see if this can help to give us some context this morning.
I don’t know how it goes down at your homes, but in the McFadden house, Christmas decorating is not so much of an event as it is a process. Someone goes up in the attic and sorts through the boxes, we haul them down, open them up, look at stuff we haven’t seen for a while to remember what we added last year and decide what is important to include this year. There are things we display every year, and some things — like fragile pieces — which we may pass on this year, given we have a kitten and there will be a couple toddlers who will be in the house for Christmas. Does any of that sound familiar? Whenever that process happens — whether it begins in July, or sometime after mid-December, it is the preparation which is the foundation for our Christmas celebrations.
Advent is the way this happens in the church. Of course, it literally happens with the work that our Worship Team and other folks put into decorating the chancel and Gathering Area and parking lot and driveway, but more importantly, it is the way the scripture readings and music and themes prepare us for the birth of Jesus through our worship. Last week we heard from the prophet Jeremiah; this week we are unpacking a little bit of the Isaiah box. The lion and lamb figures are probably familiar to you — you’ve seen this Advent pageant before — but each year we bring something different to the text. Reading and reflecting on this scene of harmony and shalom is not just nostalgia about the good old days that never really happened. Remember, prophets are people who speak for God: and we need to hear that word for us today just as much as the folks who originally heard this from Isaiah.
This portrait of peace is familiar enough that even Woody Allen — not usually quoted for his theology — has a statement about it. “The lion shall lie down with the lamb — but the lamb isn’t going to sleep very well.” It’s a valid critique. Isaiah presents us with pairs of things which should not be put together: at least not if they are both going to survive: a wolf and a lamb, a leopard and a kid (a young goat), a lion and a fatling calf, and a toddler and a poisonous snake. You can see some of the inherent comedic material here — you can probably think of your own inadvisable pairs of things — like a little bird and a crocodile, or a Brethren pastor and a four-star general, whatever — but Isiah isn’t playing this for a laugh. Notice these aren’t good vs. evil things. There’s nothing evil about being a predator, or inherently good about being an herbivore: these are critters that in the world as we know it don’t coexist very well, but in the picture which Isaiah is painting, they are just fine.
This portrait of natural enemies living in harmony is part of a longer passage of other unlikely things: a ruler who is guided by the spirit of the Lord to have wisdom and understanding; a judge who sees beyond the obvious and administers justice for the poor, stands up for the meek, and who is clothed with righteousness and faithfulness. These are not things which we have come to expect from our political leaders and decision-makers.
Last week I talked about darkness and light, and how Christ is the light which the darkness cannot overcome. Brandon Borem asked me a perceptive question after the service. He asked, “Is darkness evil, or just the absence of light?” To which I responded, Yes. Yes it is. It is a both and. There is a similar calculation about peace, which is illustrated by this passage: peace is the absence of conflict, but it is much more than that. Peace and well-being and wholeness and justice — all of these are wrapped up in the Hebrew word shalom — peace is all of these things, and peace is not the natural state of things: not nature, not government, not human relationships. Peace is not about getting back to where we started; shalom is about going beyond what we have experienced or imagined: a place we could get to only with God’s help.
This passage from Isaiah has inspired many artists, and I want to share one of my favorites. [Slide Peaceable Kingdom] This is titled “Peaceable Kingdom,” and it is a serigraph by John August Swanson. A serigraph means it was screen printed — the colors were burned onto separate screens and laid down sequentially. This allows the artist to make multiple prints of the same image. I want to share a few things about this artwork, and also about the artist. If you were with us in person or on livestream last week, we looked at Vincent Van Goh’s “The Starry Night.” This piece is also set at night — which is when you might expect animals to be lying down. This is a pretty active scene, though. There’s the lion and the lamb over on the left side of the print. The lion looks pretty chill, but other animals are up and about, including birds flying, and even some people up in the upper corner. Two things which especially caught my attention: the child in the center of the piece, holding a lighted candle, and the night sky. First, this child is calm and still: apparently not bossing the animals around, but holding the light for them. And that sky! It’s a similar color pallet to Van Gogh’s, and has a moon and stars, but it is — at least to me — a more peaceful sky, full of sparkling stars: this darkness brings the light of the stars and the light of the child into focus, rather than being turbulent or fearful.
I have been aware of John August Swanson’s work for years, but preparing for this sermon was the first I had researched his background. He was born in 1938 in Los Angeles, the son of immigrant parents. His mother was Mexican, and his father was Swedish. He grew up in multi-generational Mexican household, which linked faith and social justice activism. His figures are flat and stylized, a bit like icons, but the bright colors and energy are inspired by Latin American folk art. He said this about the cultural influences on his work: “The forest with deep shadows and darkness is a place filled with hidden sights and creatures . . . my mother told us stories of the forest and mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico. My father’s family in Sweden spoke about the wild wolves in their local forest.” Darkness was a place of mystery and concealed energy, not necessarily evil, but mystery.
He created “Peaceable Kingdom” in 1994. The National Catholic Review describes his work as a “prophetic vision of a world in which love abounds, resistance to evil is intentional, and a transformed world is possible.” A student and mentee of Swanson’s said “Every detail of his work reveals the in-breaking beauty and justice of God’s kingdom.” Swanson did not suffer from mental illness as Van Gogh did, but he battled his own difficulties: he longed to help the world, but he struggled with debilitating shyness and undiagnosed dyslexia. He found a way to share his vision and passion for justice with the gifts God gave him. He transformed what could have been deficits, or even excuses, to activism, and made them into a witness for a biblical vision of justice. At the end of his life, he made posters promoting immigration rights, fair wages, and peace. Swanson passed away on September 23, 2021, less than three months ago. I want to show you his last painting, completed in March of 2020. It’s called “The Storm,” and the inspiration for this work is the biblical story of the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and the storm of COVID-19 [Slide The Storm]
I gotta tell you; this is a way more optimistic picture than I would have painted of any storm, and especially of a global pandemic. I think the storm clouds are beautiful, and that’s not how I usually imagine storms. Notice that the boat is full of people — way more than 12 disciples. Men, women, and children, a baby. Community is an important vision of Swanson’s work: no character or animal is ever alone in his works. These people in this boat in the midst of this technicolor storm are looking and paddling in the same direction. They are galvanized by the same purpose; there are some folks who are not paddling, but there is a sense that they are not only getting through the storm, but they are getting through the storm together. That is a powerful message to put out there, especially during the despair and social isolation that so many people were experiencing in of March 2020.
I said earlier that a biblical vision of peace is something which we see only with God’s help. Although we may seek and even find personal peace from time to time, shalom is something we long for and work toward and catch glimpses of in community. It may be the absence of storm: that perfect, calm day. Those are days to celebrate, for sure, but in my experience, perfect days are few and far between. Jesus showed his disciples peace in the middle of the storm, because he alone has the power to command the storm. I believe that we find peace when we are paddling together in the middle of the storm, and call on Jesus to guide and protect us; we find shalom in the work of justice and righteousness. Jesus Christ is the lion, the lamb, and the child who can guide us in paths of peace. Amen.