Fritz Eichenberg was born to a Jewish family in Germany before the rise of Hitler. Fritz worked as a printer before obtaining an art degree. Eichenberg’s political activity forced he and his young family to flee to New York and between the age of 30-40 his wife would die leaving him a single parent. Following his conversion to a Friends Meeting in New York, he was influenced by Quaker Minister Edward Hicks who died 52 years before Eichenberg was born. In addition to his ministry, Hicks was a painter as well and during the last years of the 1800’s, Hicks painted 62 versions of a painting called, The Peaceable Kingdom, emphasizing the Quaker call for a peaceful world. Eichenberg as a professor of Art at the University of Rhode Island, was heavily influenced by Hicks work and in 1950 created his own Peaceable Kingdom wood art drawing which adorns our bulletin cover this morning. The actual copy of Eichenbergs wood art masterpiece adorns the conference room at a Catholic Retreat Center in St. Louis where I taught Transitional Ministry Education for 3 of the last 4 years. But in all the versions of The Peaceable Kingdom painted by Hicks in the 1800’s and Eichenberg in 1950, each contain a fatal flaw. Notice the picture. What do you see? An ox, a bear, a rabbit, snake and child as well as there in the center, hiding the tree – a lion and lying nearby – a lamb. Because we all know that it says, “The lion shall lie down with the lamb.” How many have heard that quotation from the Bible? Unfortunately, that is not a quotation from the Bible and in fact, the Bible never says that at all. In the two occasions from Isaiah, they both say the “wolf shall lie down beside the lamb, and the lion will eat will lambchops? No, the lion will eat straw like the ox. In 70 years of Art by a Quaker minister who painted over 60 versions of The Peaceable Kingdom and his young protégé born 50 years after his death and who continued the good work on his own, all the paintings figure prominently with the lion as a central component of that desired kingdom and nearby always, is a lamb.
This sermon is not directed at Fritz Eichenberg or Edward Hicks or their compelling art that pictures a world in which a peaceable kingdom can be imagined. Frankly, the reason that I took a picture of that print several years ago and have kept it close to my heart is because I am sick to death of a world in which violent behaviour and violent weapons are explained away with a curt “that’s just the way that it is”. But that’s perhaps a sermon and discussion for another day.
But the image that frames our worship bulletin reminds us that sometimes it may mean that we should check the beliefs we think are true, they are in the Bible, but alas, perhaps they just might not be there at all (or at least in the way that we are certain that they are.) Let’s begin with the passage read from 2 Thessalonians and then we will come back to the Isaiah passage and see how they tie together.
In 2nd Thessalonians, we find a letter (actually the 2nd of two letters) sent by a man to a group of people that he loved dearly. Perhaps you rarely receive actual snail mail anymore. If you are too young to understand that concept, people used to take pen and paper and write a page or three of thoughts, instructions, recipes and sometimes even cash. That was the case from what we read in today’s epistle. Paul’s 2nd letter to a church in Thessalonica was radically different from the first had been. This is a letter of concern written to them in light of persecution and danger to the church, and he wrote to encourage them but in no uncertain terms, to warn them.
I remember letters that I used to receive from my family while I was away at camp that to read them now would cause a chuckle. “Mitch don’t forget to leave your wet bathing suit on the shower bar overnight. Don’t play outside during a lightening storm. Change your clothes - You have clean clothes every day you are at camp.” Letters often contain the pet names that our friends/family call us by that we would never want anyone to see or to know. My former letters from my sister were frequently addressed to Mitchie and mine to my son contained the pet name of “Bunkie.” Paul began his 2nd letter using the title “Beloved”. It is like saying “Friends” and implies a deep relationship and that what is to follow will be warm and deeply personal. He doesn’t disappoint for soon he seems to call them “lazy” and “busybodies.” He tells them that since some are lazy, they should not eat because if you do not work, then you should not eat.”
Just like that some have taken that verse and tried to tie it to a social policy directed to poor people who are only “taking advantage of others’ generosity”. Why do they beg when they could work? Why are they free handouts when they are able bodied?
Please don’t use this verse to proof text those beliefs/perceptions because Paul is not talking to/about the needy, the homeless, the marginalized and the disadvantaged in this verse and he would be aghast to know how many have taken his words, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” out of context to nix social programs that feed and shelter the truly needy. In fact, the words in their original language might surprise you because the word here is not actually “lazy” but “disorganized.”
Thessalonica was in trouble – as a city and as a church. Persecution was rampant. Jews and Gentiles were still trying to figure out this Jesus thing and what that meant to their future. Some in the Christian community had locked onto what Jesus had said about coming back for them. “Beam me up, Scotty” because that would certainly get me out of this place in a hurry. Some had quit work to spend their days hoping Jesus would suddenly make it all better. They were in no way helping the Christian community to pull together, to be faithful in light of the opposition they were facing. They had pulled together before. (At least when Paul had been with them.) They enjoyed great church dinners. Ezra would make lamb stew. Martha cooked incredible bread. Malachi would bring the olives. But they were worried. Some were not contributing to those dinners in the way they had. They were members of the church, but they certainly were not acting like it. They were distant and disorganized (the word here for lazy.)
Disorder happens in a congregation that loses sight of why they are there together. They begin focusing on the danger rather than the depth of their relationship – with Jesus and with one another. Disorder tears at the fabric of a community. It causes it to attack one another. It led some, frankly, to become and act out as “busybodies”. Do you know any busybodies? I can point out 50 things that you are not doing the way that I think they should be done, and when that happens, suddenly I am not focused on “What do we need to be doing together or better yet, what do I need to be doing to stay focused, less disordered, on what I lose sight of when I am busy-bodying you. Stop it. Stop being a busybody because it only serves to divide us and make us weaker. Paul closed the chapter with the best yet. “Don’t grow tired in doing well.”
Paul calls on the Thessalonians, and us today, to hold some combination of the following as our ethical goal: “Don’t get tired of doing what is right. Don’t get sick of doing good. Keep on keeping on in doing good things. Never stop lifting up those around you if you can. Don’t ever give up on doing good. Do whatever good you can, whenever you can, wherever you can, in whatever ways you can -- even if you don’t have to.”
Disorder may look like laziness but at its root is fear and confusion. When fear and confusion prevail, even in our deepest psyche, disorder happens and we lose focus on our central core, that together we are the body of Christ. This is not my church and it is not your church. No one of us is able to dictate “our way or the highway” because when that happens, disorder breaks loose and when we fall into disorder, the busybodies come out in droves. Do not be weary, in doing the things God has called us to.
Which brings us back to the wolf and the lamb and the lion eating hay rather than lambchops – the peaceable kingdom. In the passage from Isaiah 65 (and in Isaiah 11 near the beginning was the same image of sometime in the future. In our time, it seems difficult to imagine such a peaceable kingdom in our world in the times that we live. Can you imagine the kind of harmony pictured in Fritz Eichenberg’s compelling work? When might this kind of scene be possible? It seems like some kind of heavenly paradise remote, distant and unattainable in a world that now only knows violence and bloodshed. Too often that is all that we see and all that we expect. But this scripture brings us back to the focus that “God still has the capacity to create, and to make new!” I will create new and the former things will not be remembered. Pictured here is not other-worldly and distant. They shall build houses and plant vineyards. In our world the Times Columnist might say “Another multi-family housing unit is going up in Langford” and the fall harvest is now available at Galley Farms. But even more meaningful is the promise within of a vision in which our labour is not done for the wealthy and the few. The land is God’s gift to all, and all get to join in the work of building and planting and enjoying the results. This passage calls us to make this our vision and to move beyond an image of the world as a survival-of-the-fittest kind of place. Could we work toward a world of tenderness and plenty and at peace with one another and it becomes that way because we model it here among ourselves and at home and at work and with our neighbours and with…..
But notice before we leave…what God will do and what we will do. I’m afraid that too often I get stuck in the images of the front page of the newspaper with a “woe is me, what can I do” attitude? The peaceable kingdom, just a pie in the sky pipe dream? The Isaiah picture begins with what God is still creating and leads into what we are to do (building, planting, working together, and not being tired when we are doing well). The peaceable kingdom is possible, even expected when we combine what God will do with what we need to do.
I leave you not with an image but with the story of Muriel, a member of a church I once served. Muriel was a kind and gracious and energetic person. She was special needs with the emotional maturity of a teenager although I suspect she was in her 60’s. Her name badge said, “Muriel, Elevator Lady” because it was her self-commissioned role to greet all-comers on the first floor, open the steel gate in the aging box we called an elevator and push and hold the button while the creaky contraption made its way to the 2nd floor, less than 15 ft from the first floor. Often the elevator would stop with Muriel and passenger in tow and you could hear her screams down the hall begging for rescue for her and her passenger. She was very regimented in needing at least 8 copies of My Little Pony coloring pages printed for her to color with new colored pencils prior to church. When it was your time to pick her up on Sunday mornings outside her apartment, she would call on cue at exactly 7:30 the night before to remind you and you needed to call her at 7:00 Sunday morning to make sure she was awake and again when you left your house to tell her you were on your way. You had to watch her closely as she was prone to ask for rides home and reveal a need to go by Walmart to pick up new colored pencils or need $20 since she had already spent her weekly allotment on other things. Muriel was disorganized (to some lazy) and she evoked out of certain people that busybody gene that wanted to prod her, cajole her, scold her and make her over. But it was our role as the church to mentor her, to enjoy her childlike wonderment, to guide her and to live out together God’s creation among us as a Peaceable Kingdom. It really is possible and it’s not all up to us. Can you see it?