Our Eastertide theme is “All Things Green and Growing.” In the spring we may be starting our gardens, growing spinach, peas and beans. The slugs haven’t chewed holes in all the lettuce leaves yet, and we are full of hope for a bountiful harvest.
But sometimes growing is uncomfortable. Sometimes it is downright painful.
So we’re going to talk about that today. We begin with a little Robert Frost, and then I will talk about sheep and a coyote and wolves and walls and fences and how we create a table for everyone. How we build God’s peaceful realm.
In his poem “Mending Wall,” Frost writes,
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
that wants it down.
[Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” 1914]
At the farm where I live, the coyotes would like the fences down around the sheep. A coyote got into the rams’ pen a few years ago and killed a ram lamb. This is not the vision of God’s peaceful realm that we just read in Isaiah, but it is coyotes being coyotes. When my housemate Catherine and I discovered what had happened, we walked the perimeter of that pen, found where the coyote had dug under the fence. Like the two farmers in Frost’s poem, we mended the fence, and then Catherine created a separate enclosed area in the crawl space under the barn where the rams now go at night, to give them an extra layer of protection.
So a good fence can offer safety. It can wall out predators. As Frost says,
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Walls can keep sheep safe from coyotes. Imagine you are the lamb in Isaiah’s description of the peaceful realm, and the wolf comes up to you and says, “Hey, I hear we are going to live together. Why don’t you come for dinner?” If I were the lamb, I would want to be very, very certain that I wasn’t going to be the main course. I might prefer to build a wall, and have my dinner over here and the wolf’s dinner way over there. I might want to create my own table on my own terms.
As much as Isaiah paints this great vision of God’s peaceful realm, it isn’t based in reality. We know this. The lion is not going to eat straw. Not going to happen. So I love this vision as something to which we can all aspire, but I have no expectation of seeing it happen anytime soon. Lions will be lions; wolves will be wolves. They are carnivores. That’s just the reality.
God’s peaceful realm is not static. It’s not without conflict. It’s not happy-happy all the time. Getting the wolf and the lamb to live together is going to take a lot of hard work for both the lamb and the wolf, and there will always be the risk that the wolf will just snap under the tension, and the lamb will become dinner. Peace is something we have to create, something we have to build, not just something that happens to us. And we have to maintain it all the time.
You may recall that after our Pacific Northwest Conference Annual Meeting a year ago, I came back here and told you about the uncomfortable conversation that had emerged around racism in our midst. We met on Zoom, and in the morning we voted to make anti-racism work a priority in our conference. Everyone was patting themselves on the back. Yay team! In the afternoon, we took a look at the conference budget, which is hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was a new line item: Anti-racism training: $2,000. And one Black woman in our conference was bold enough to call that out, to say before the whole 150 or so people gathered that $2,000 for anti-racism work was an insult in such a large budget.
What followed was several hours of honest, uncomfortable discussion. A number of our Black delegates spoke with great feeling about what it means to be Black in this conference. Most of us white people did some deep listening. And by the end we had changed that $2,000 line item to $52,000, pulling more money from our conference reserves.
This year felt like Part 2 of that conversation. Again, some of our Black members shared passionately, and again, the white people mostly listened deeply. The woman who started the conversation last year said that, compared with the overall budget, $52,000 for anti-racism work was “chump change.” She suggested that we create a conference-level ministry position just to address racism. Other people chimed in with suggestions as well. After some time, a member of the Stewardship Committee said to the woman who had started this conversation, “We’ve been working on this budget all year long. Why didn’t you come join us?” It was a sincere invitation. I would have loved to hear her say, “Yes, maybe I need to join the Stewardship Committee. When do you meet?” Instead, the woman responded, “I’m done with coming to other people’s tables. When I come to the table, it’s going to be a table that I created.”
So emotions were running a little high.
About this time, the Rev. Dr. Kelle Brown, senior pastor at Plymouth UCC downtown, spoke up. She is a Black woman as well. I can’t remember what she said, but I do remember that she created space for everyone, and she spoke truth. She said, “I’m tired of hearing from different congregations that they’ve started an anti-racism book group.” She knows that’s only step 1 of a long process. But she also spoke grace. We are all God’s beloved children—every single one of us. And if we’re going to live into God’s peaceful realm, we have to keep having these conversations. The wolf and the lamb have to work it out.
I don’t like being cast as the wolf. But I recognize that, in a country with a 400-year history of racism, I as a white person have no idea how painful it is to be a Black person. I do not get pulled over for Driving While White. I do not get asked to represent my entire race. White privilege has allowed people in my extended family to do well and accumulate wealth and own homes, and I have benefited from that my whole life. You may recall that white soldiers returning from World War II were given the GI Bill to attend college. They were able to buy homes and accumulate wealth that they could then pass along to their kids. Black soldiers were cut out of the GI Bill because of their race. They didn’t get the college education, all expenses paid, and when they went to buy houses, redlining kept them out of many neighborhoods. They worked hard but were unable to accumulate anywhere near the wealth of white families. And that legacy is still with us today, playing out through the generations—one of the huge divergence points in family income and wealth and homeownership.
So I recognize that I am the wolf and that, if the wolf and the lamb are going to get together for dinner, the lamb gets to create the table and determine if there need to be fences to keep her safe.
Sam Rennebohm, Cora Trujillo, and I were all at the Annual Meeting. When we touched base afterward, there were all kinds of emotions to process. Sam said that, at his work, there had been some incident where Black staff members brought up some issues—it sounded similar in dynamics to what had happened at our meeting. And someone reflected later that the very fact that people felt safe enough to bring up the issues at all with their white colleagues—that in itself was progress. As uncomfortable as it was, they could say their piece and be heard and taken seriously. And out of that conversation, change was possible.
That, my friends, is how we get to God’s peaceful realm. Not by pretending that everybody’s happy and we all just get along, but by speaking from the heart of our brokenness and hearing each other deeply and respectfully, by having uncomfortable conversations and then figuring out how to move forward, taking into account all that has been shared. Building the peaceful realm is hard, hard work.
At the end of our conference Annual Meeting, our leaders stepped into a breakout room to confer, because the next thing we were supposed to do was vote on the budget—only now we weren’t sure what we were voting on. They came back and said it would be inappropriate to power through in this way. They will have further conversations, and we will all reconvene soon to vote on the budget.
There are no guarantees. The United Methodist Church, for example, has been wrestling with the LGBTQ issue for years. Is their table big enough to welcome LGBTQ folks? Just a few weeks ago they announced a split. Congregations that want to shut out LGBTQ members are creating a separate Methodist splinter group. A wall is going up. We can hold our Methodist siblings in prayer as they navigate this change, this shutting out, this heartbreak. We can also celebrate how important it was to many, many Methodists to recognize LGBTQ people fully as God’s beloved children that they were unwilling to compromise on this issue.
We also heard this week, right before Mothers Day, that the Supreme Court will likely overturn Roe v. Wade. As fierce as the fighting has been about this issue for over 50 years, it’s about to get worse. Women experiencing unwanted pregnancies—often these are women without much money or resources—will have fewer options, and whether they choose an abortion or to have a baby for which they are not prepared, what options they do have will be a lot more expensive and difficult. This week on the radio I heard a story about abortion clinics being terrorized by Fundamentalists in the name of Christ. Because apparently Jesus wants to make the lives of poor women even more difficult than they already are. Where do we get to a peaceful realm around abortion, especially now, with abortion resources about to be outlawed in many states? This is hard work, and the answers can be complicated. This is another space where people may disagree and where there is opportunity for deep, respectful listening. But I hope we can agree that no one deserves to be harassed or threatened, especially in the name of Jesus.
Mike Denton, our conference minister, preached a message for us at Annual Meeting in the morning. He focused on hope as part of the triumvirate of faith, hope, and love, and the power of this trio to bring down systems of domination.
He concluded by saying, “Hope. Is. Built.” I would add, so is peace. Peace is built when we commit to the vision of God’s peaceful realm, in all its challenges and discomfort. Peace is built when we listen deeply to each other’s brokenness, acknowledge any role we may have played, seek forgiveness, offer grace, and find a new way forward.
In the peaceful realm there is hard work, and there are fences to protect sheep from coyotes. Hawks eat cute little bunnies for breakfast, and deer knock branches off my fruit trees if I don’t fence them off first. The peaceful realm has to be real, has to accept everyone for who they are and create an environment where all can thrive. That takes commitment, persistence, and a lot of love and patience. It’s nuanced and complicated. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, but that moves us forward. Hope is built. Peace is built, too. This is the invitation to God’s peaceful realm: that we be builders of walls where they protect, dismantlers of walls where they shut people out from justice, and creators of a table where all are welcome. Amen.