If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Imagine a World: a sermon on Isaiah 2:1-5 and Luke 17:20-21

John Lennon wrote the song Imagine as an invitation to envision a world without hunger, war, or religious divisions. He wistfully sang, "Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one." And he wasn't the only one. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream of a world where black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic would join hands together in peaceful co-existence. John F. Kennedy hoped for the age to dawn "in which the strong are just and the weak are secure and the peace preserved." Poets and prophets, politicians and peacemakers have long dreamed of a world where peace flows like a river.

John Lennon was right. He was not the only dreamer. Long before John Lennon, the prophet Isaiah was a dreamer. He imagined a new world. Isaiah envisioned a coming day when the mountain of God's sacred presence will be lifted up, the nations will stream to that holy place and learn God's ways, and "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 anymore." With two world wars behind us, the Korean war, the Vietnam war, Rwanda, the Gulf War, Sarajevo and Kosovo, the war in Afghanistan, the present war with Iraq, and God only knows how many wars will follow, can we even imagine a world where swords are beaten into plowshares? Or has our moral imagination been buried beneath the rubble of violence?

The prophet Isaiah was able to imagine such a world at peace. Even from within a land scorched by violence. That small strip of land we refer to as Israel/Palestine had long seen the gleam of swords from centuries of war and lost battles with more powerful nations. Their faith was constantly challenged as they were overrun by foreign nations and their gods. Still, there were those wild-eyed prophets, who saw the world through a different light and lens----the light of God's presence and the lens of prophetic imagination. Prophets see things that most people have a hard time even imagining. Isaiah was able to see the whole world on a pilgrimage toward God, the Sacred Center of Life.

Every religious tradition depicts the sacred center of the world differently. Many religions see the center of the world as being located at a particular historic site, a holy temple, or sacred mountain. Mircea Eliade , scholar of world religions, tells us that the sacred mountain is part of many religious traditions. The holy mountain is believed to mark the highest point in the world. It is the place where heaven and earth kiss, a space where God dwells most powerfully. So, pilgrimages are made to these sacred centers of the earth.

The sacred center of the earth for the Jews was the holy temple, situated on Mt. Zion. Psalm 48 paints an image of the mountain of God's presence as "a joy to the whole earth." The prophet Isaiah imagines a world where the mountain of God's dwelling is the highest of mountains and all nations make pilgrimage to the temple mount. The whole earth streams to the sacred center, where God dwells.

Now, we might quickly dismiss Isaiah's vision as just a bunch of triumphalistic nonsense, imaginings of a religious fanatic who sees his own religion being lifted up above every other religious tradition. Instead of understanding Isaiah’s vision from an exclusivist viewpoint, let's see his vision as painted with images shaped by Israel's particular faith tradition. Isaiah dreams of a day when all people will gather together before God's presence to learn and live in God's ways.

Can we imagine such a day in light of our own age and diverse faith traditions? Can we imagine a world where Christians are no longer divided by denominational labels. Can we imagine a world where Jew, Muslim, and Christian stand together in God's holy presence, learning God's ways? Can we imagine a world where all people walk in God's paths, whether they know it or acknowledge it? Can we imagine a world where God, and not the most powerful, brings justice to all peoples and arbitrates the differences between nations? Can we imagine a world where stealth bombers are converted into tractors and M~ 16s are melted down to make shovels? Can we imagine such a world? Or is a world, such as Isaiah envisions, just a pipe dream, a bunch of idealistic, head~in~the~clouds thinking that will never touch down on the hard reality of life where you and I live?

It all depends on our vision. Can we see what the prophets saw? Can we see all people streaming into God's holy presence? Can we imagine a world where bombs are melted into spoons? Or have we allowed our imaginations to be shaped and molded by our dominant culture that sees violence as the primary means of solving the world’s problems and the United States as the holy mountain before which all nations should bow? Maybe we need to see the world through the eyes of a prophet. According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, the role of the prophet is "to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." (1) Prophets help us see those things our culture and world have blinded us from seeing and have made unimaginable. Our world has constricted our vision, blurred the earthly possibilities of seeing a new world, a world of peace with justice.

The present war on terror has blurred our vision for peace. Our society has readily sacrificed its liberties for an illusive sense of security. We have fallen in line with the political agenda of a worldwide war on terror without any forseeable end. Our culture has accepted a distorted vision of perpetual warfare. We have ignored the timely and profound words of President James Madison, who in 1795 declared that “of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most dreaded…War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few…No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual war.”

We have become like chickens with contact lenses. Yes, there are such things as contact lenses for chickens. There is even a supplier of chicken contact lenses who grinds out 150,000 pairs a day. These molded plastic lenses fit snug over the eyeballs of the chicken. They are not placed on chickens to give them better eyesight, but to distort their vision. With these contact lenses firmly in place chickens don't run wild and free in the barnyard any longer. The contact lenses shorten their vision, so they do not become restless and rebellious, like the poultry in the movie Chicken Run, who together resist the notion that their only future is to end up in a chicken pot pie. With their vision shortened and distorted chickens with contact lenses stay cooped up in their crowded cages. They lose their vision of a freer world outside the coup. They grow fat and lazy, plump for the kill.

We have become like those chickens. The dominant culture around us, with its subtle propaganda, has placed contact lenses over our little chicken eyes. Our vision has become distorted and myopic. We have been fattened on the propaganda that says we should sit quietly in our comfortable coup and don’t worry about all that mess going on in the Middle East. Go shop and let our politicians and the military worry about all that. We shouldn’t even try to imagine another world beyond this one wracked by unbridled nationalism, militarism, and global capitalism. The prophets show us a world, where peace is on the throne and justice rules, a world we cannot see when our vision is distorted by our own power and privilege.

If we cannot imagine a world in which all people dwell together in peace and learn God's ways, then, of course it has no chance of becoming reality. But, if the truth be told, it is the dreamers and defiers, the poets and prophets who not only give us visions of a better world, but the inspiration and motivation to turn dreams into reality. Victor Hugo once said, "Progress will be carried forward by a series of dazzling visions." Imagination is the first step in changing human reality. Someone else said, "It is imagination that gives shape to the universe." The imagination of the poets and prophets can stimulate the birth pangs of a new world.

So, let's do our own prophetic imagining. Imagine a world where a child is born who asks, "Mommy, what was war?" Or the day when it is officially announced that the word "terrorist" has been stricken from Webster's dictionary due to its lack of use. Imagine a world where recruiters walk into the halls of our high schools. Their tables are set and brochures are ready. They have come not to recruit for the military, but to enlist young men and women into vocations as agricultural developers, medical missionaries, and community servants. Imagine a world where the President of the United States comes on T.V. and says in a public address, "My fellow Americans, we are the richest nation in the world, not because we have a lot of money and resources or the Dow Jones is high, but because we have finally ended hunger and homelessness, replacing every ghetto and barrio with affordable housing, and have reduced crime through education, social reform, restorative justice, and a new hope for the most vulnerable in this great nation of ours."

Imagine a world where, on American street corners, in the halls of congress and the Pentagon, across the sands of Afghanistan, and in the marketplaces of Baghdad, people once again hear the voices of angels singing heaven's song, "Peace on earth, good will to all." Imagine such a world, right here and right now, swimming in our eyes, and blooming underneath our toes. Only with such visions will we be empowered to begin to lay the foundations of a new reality in our very midst starting right here with each of us.

There was once a man who grew tired of living in a world filled with racism, war, division, hunger, and hopelessness. He was weary of the sharp swords and cutting words. His family and friends patiently listened to him while he passionately shared with them his vision of a city set on a hill, where people lived together in peace and harmony. It was a city where heaven kissed the earth. Night after night he dreamed of this holy city on a far off hill. It became so real that he could taste it in the corner of his mouth. One morning he woke up from his dream and announced to his family and friends that he must go and find this city. He packed a meager meal, kissed his family, and set off inn search of the city on a hill. He walked all that day. Just before the sun set over the purple hills, he found a place to stop and rest and sleep, in a forest. He ate his sandwich, knelt and prayed, and smoothed out the earth where he would lay his head. Just before he went to sleep he placed his shoes in the center of the path he trod, pointing them in the direction of the holy city, that sacred place of peace and harmony.

That night, as he slept, a trickster walking that same path discovered the pilgrim's shoes. Unable to resist a practical joke, he turned the shoes around backwards, pointing them in the direction from which the man had come. Early the next morning the pilgrim arose, recited a morning prayer, ate what remained of the food he had brought, and started off on his pilgrimage toward the holy city, heading in the direction his shoes pointed. He walked all day long. Just before the sun set over the purple hills, he saw the heavenly city off in the distance. It wasn't as large and impressive as he imagined. It looked strangely familiar. He entered a street that looked a whole lot like the street in his own village. He knocked on a door of a house that looked, oddly enough, just like his own house. The pilgrim greeted the family that lived there and the friends who were there breaking bread together. The pilgrim lived and worked ever after with peace in his heart and in his actions in the holy city he once dreamed of.

Jesus said, "The kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, "Lo, here it is!" or "There!" For behold the kingdom of God is among you." Now, can you imagine that?!

(l) Walter Breuggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978) 13.

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