May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a freshman in high school I played the part of Gwendolyn Pigeon in the play, “The Odd Couple.” For those of you who don’t remember, The Odd Couple was about two recently divorced men – one compulsively neat and the other a “slob” – who move in together and immediately start rubbing each other the wrong way. One night they go on a double date with the Pigeon sisters, a British duo who are, as written by Neil Simon, not the most intelligent of companions. My best line as Gwendolyn came after Felix tells Gwendolyn that he works as a news writer for a local television station. “Really,” responds Gwendolyn, “wherever do you get your ideas from”?
This line is not as funny as it was forty years ago. Nowadays, it is actually not unreasonable to ask those who write the news where they get their ideas from – because it certainly seems that it is frequently not from verifiable sources.
Of course, in some ways this has always been the case. I often hear people attribute sayings or ideas to the Bible that are nowhere to be found in the Good Book. More often, I observe individuals wholeheartedly embracing interpretations of scripture passages that are frequently subjective (and generally inaccurate). Where people get their ideas from – including art, literature film, and the internet – often influences the way they understand a given piece of scripture.
Today we heard a very familiar passage that is part of a prophecy delivered by Isaiah in the eighth century before Christ. While it is certainly a beautiful text, we might not know it so well if it wasn’t for a series of popular paintings by a nineteenth century artist named Edward Hicks. His work is known simply as ‘The Peaceable Kingdom.’
“Hicks [was a] Quaker preacher born in … 1780… When [he] was just eighteen months old, his mother died. His father was unable to support him financially, so he sent him to board with family friends… who exposed him to Quakerism.” As an adult he worked as an ornamental painter, but in 1811 he also became a Quaker minister. Despite working full-time as a clergy person, Hicks continued to paint in order to support his family. His favorite subject was the portion of Isaiah we read today that describes the prophet’s vision of God’s beloved country – a place of unity, love, and peace. Most of us are familiar with at least one version of this painting, in which predatory and dangerous animals lie docilely among their prey and a cherubic Christ child leads them all.
In some ways it is not surprising that Hicks was so fascinated by this particular passage. As a member of the Religious Society for Friends (the formal name of the Quaker religion), Hicks believed that God communicates directly with human beings, imparting divine guidance to all who will listen. Founded in the seventeenth century, the Friends’ society sought to return, “to the roots of Jesus’ teachings around non-violence, simple living, God’s concern for the marginalized, [and] the immediate and equal access to God’s Spirit.” For Quakers, one way of discerning how God wants us to act is to ‘mind the light.’ This is “a Quaker practice of learning to see God’s presence both around and inside us.” As a painter, Hicks followed a personal revelation he experienced as coming from that light to create something that would help people invest in Isaiah’s vision and, “to express his yearning for unity and peace, especially in light of [the first leadership struggle] within the Society of Friends.”
St. Paul attempted to use his own gifts as a preacher and teacher to do the same. In today’s scripture from the Letter to the Romans, he paints a verbal picture of what can be accomplished when The People of God love and accept one another. They are to rejoice, because the leader who will bring justice and peace to all of creation has finally arrived. Jesus, he tells them, is the confirmation of God’s promise of a society of love.
But not in the way they expected – and not in a way that many twenty-first century humans seem to understand any better than they did. Jesus, John the Baptist, tells his followers, is not like any king we have ever known. Not only will this king not demand or encourage us to commit acts of treachery and violence against one another, but his primary command will be to repent of such actions. He will not throw his lot in with the politically or financially powerful in the name of obtaining influence. In fact, John specifically condemns such worldly religious leaders, labeling them a “brood of vipers,” and calling them out on their entitlement and presumption. The leader that John wants us to prepare for promises a kin-dom instead of a kingdom – an experience of the union of disparate peoples and ideas in which goodness and prosperity are linked.
John makes it clear that there is a choice to be made. We can embrace the promise of God that is so vividly expressed by Isaiah’s vision. We can defend the needy, rescue the poor, and crush the oppressor - or we can tend to our own visions of sheltering and promoting only ourselves and those we love. We can choose to live at one with all creation or to be left alone, cut down by selfishness and thrown into the fire to burn eternally in the heat of our own ambitions. What we cannot do is nothing. We cannot presume that we are among the chosen. We cannot depend on our earthly achievements. We need to believe in something more. We need to have faith that God’s promise is already fulfilled - even if we do not yet see it. And we must be propelled by hope to work for the realization of it.
This is an enormous task. It is countercultural. It is exhausting -but such a prize should not be easy. You cannot have the manger without the cross. Edward Hicks understood this. We know this because he painted the Peaceable Kingdom sixty-two times – and each of those versions gives us a glimpse of his circumstances and how they influenced his faith over time. While his first paintings on his theme suggest an idealized community where peace has been fully and voluntarily achieved, later editions – like the one where the baby Jesus has to forcibly restrain the lion – suggest that Hicks, like us, had to fight hard to retain hope in the face of an unjust and cruel world. We watch his struggle in Hick’s paintings as they lurch between anxiety and fear for the world around him and an insistent belief in the truth of his interior vision – of the light within.
Victoria Jones tells us that “Hicks wrote later in life that all the intrafaith dissension he witnessed had destroyed his hope of ever seeing [a kingdom like the one Isaiah envisioned established in the here and now]. But, that realization only caused him to cling to Christ all the more tightly.” We can do the same, using this time of preparation to attempt to access the light within each of us to discern what we can do to contribute to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision of beloved community. Then, clinging tightly to our Lord, follow that path, believing that by doing so we will not only find but help to create the Peaceable kin-dom of God. AMEN.
Jones, Victoria Emily, (December 6, 2016), “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks,” Art & Theology, https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/ “The Quaker Story,” https://quaker.org/. FGC Quaker Books, “Mind the Light: Learning to see with Spiritual Eyes,” Book description, https://quakerbooks.org/products/mind-the-light-learning-to-see-with-spiritual-eyes. Quoted in Jones, Victoria Emily, (December 6, 2016), “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks,” Art & Theology, https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/ Jones, Victoria Emily, (December 6, 2016), “The Peaceable Kingdoms of Edward Hicks,” Art & Theology, https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/