Antietam, Isaiah and the hope for a better world
I stood on New Years’ Day on a hill at Antietam, wanting to give my son a better world.
We were visiting relatives for the holidays, and stopped to see this Civil War battlefield.
The battle of Antietam took place on September 17, 1862.
23,000 solders killed or wounded here, marking the end of General Lee’s invasion of the North.
It is said that the battle turned the tide of the war, giving Lincoln the victory he needed
to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
We walked the hills, listening to the wind whip through the fields of cut corn stalks,
reading the monuments and examining the artillery still stationed there.
My son Joel, three years old at the time, wanted to know about the cannons.
“Do they put water in the end of it, Mommy?” Joel asked.
I tried to explain about the cannon ball, about how once it was fired
it would break the other side’s wagons and hurt their horses and their soldiers.
I showed him pictures of the smoke, and of horses and people lying down.
I tried to explain that this cannon was an instrument of war,
and that war happens when people can no longer work out their differences with words.
“But why, Mommy?” Joel wanted to know.
I began to explain the reasons for the civil war, but I ran out of words.
Was it slavery? That would be noble thing to tell him.
But even as a person who has read very little American history,
I know that the Civil War was as much about the economics
of the industrial north and the slave holding south as it was about the ethics of slavery.
“They fought the war because each side was afraid of losing their way of life,” I said finally.
“But why?” Joel insisted. Clearly my answer was not good enough.
After all, we adults were always telling him to use his words, to share his toys, not to hit or to push.
Why don’t we practice what we preach?
I wanted so much to be able to give an answer, an explanation.
I didn’t have one.
But I found within a deep desire to do better, to be better, for his sake,
and for the sake of all the children around the world whose mothers and fathers wanted the same for their kids .
We all want to give our children a better world,
whether they are children or grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, or our students or neighbors.
We want them to have a healthy planet where there is enough for everyone’ s need.
We want to give them a world where people can pursue their own lives without harassment or harm
where people are treated with dignity no matter where they live or what their background.
And if we cannot provide all that, we at least want to protect them from the worst that life has to offer:
spare them the hardship of disease and poverty, the squalor of addiction,
and the stunted opportunities of ignorance
There are, however, no guarantees.
As hard as we may try to shield our children, to give them the right values and opportunities
they make their own decisions in a complicated and broken world.
There is no Christian insurance policy against suffering.
However, in baptism God offers promises.
First and foremost, baptism is about what God does—God makes us part of the family.
God claims us and marks us as God’s forever, no matter what hair brained schemes we cook up,
no matter what ill formed decisions we make, no matter how far we stray.
But God does not leave to go out into the world unprepared, to wander willy nilly til we get in trouble.
For in baptism, we, the community of the faithful, pray down the gifts of the Holy Spirit on the baptized.
“the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.”
Like an armor and a tool belt, these gifts both protect and empower God’s children.
But let’s look at little more closely at these gifts.
Did you notice where these words come from?
They are our Old Testament reading from Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”
The ‘fear of the Lord’ does not mean being afraid for God, but instead having a healthy respect for God.
The final gift is about finding pleasure in a relationship with God.
The ‘him’ mentioned here was probably originally a historical king, perhaps Josiah the reformer,
or an unnamed hoped for king who would walk in David’s shoes.
But as time went on, this passage began to seen as an expression of the hope for a Messiah.
Messiah literally means, anointed one,
and in this passage the expected leader is anointed with these gifts of the Spirit
to usher in a new era, the peaceable kingdom where wolf and lamb, calf and lion lie down together.
Early Christians saw these gifts active in Jesus, and believed that through him the new era had begun
The gifts of the Spirit in Jesus were a sign that God was present and active in the world.
When we pray these gifts of the Holy Spirit in baptism,
and again at confirmation or any affirmation of baptism
we are saying that we want God to make these gifts take root in the lives of the baptized.
Today we are praying that Emma be blessed with the gifts of wisdom and understanding,
power and might,
knowledge and respect for God, and joy in God’s presence.
And we pray that her parents and sponsors would also grow in these gifts of the Holy Spirit
and that we as a congregation of baptized people would grow in these gifts of the Holy Spirit.
We need greater wisdom to untangle the world’s geopolitics.
We need more understanding in our relationships.
We need better counsel when making decisions, and to be less judgmental when giving advice.
We need God’s might to power us when the journey gets rough
and we need God’s joy to lift us and remind us of the beauty of life.
It is no insurance policy, but it is protection—protection found in community.
For today Emma is joined to the community of the faithful, the body of Christ.
This community is a safe place where people can be who they truly are,
where people care for one another,
where members support each other
as they live out the baptismal promises to care for the world God has made.
But most of all, baptism is the fuel that runs a Christian life.
The gifts of the Spirit empower us to do more and be more for the children of the world
to embody more of Christ’s qualities of care and welcome in the world and live more gently on the earth.
Isaiah gives me another vision to add to that hillside at Antietam.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
In these words of Isaiah, somehow the nature of animals to hurt and destroy has been overcome, replaced by a community of mutual care and trust. In this kingdom there is no fear; there are no predators, no prey. To me this oracle from Isaiah is a vision of the world in metamorphosis; that somehow the hillside of Antietam becomes the mountain of our God, cannon and monuments swallowed up in one great gulp, a garden growing verdant blooms and succulent fruits in its stead. It’s the hope that we ourselves may be found in that garden, ready to trust and give ourselves without fear. It is the hope that we are transformed by the love of God that we may practice what we preach.
Today we start with the gifts of the Spirit.
For Emma, for me, for you.
God’s love can and does change hearts.
Christian community supports the growth.
Let us develop these gifts of the Spirit within ourselves, and share them with the world.