The second Sunday of Advent is known as John the Baptist Sunday by many. Barbara Brown Taylor takes the harsh preachments seriously and titled her sermon, The Guard Dog of Grace, in her vivid hearing of John’s direct, take no prisoners, style demanding change. His message is direct; we are to change our lives as the Kingdom of God is near. Even Mary Oliver senses the need for change as she cries out the wish that we could claim a change in the direction of our lives: “Mend my life!”
At the age of 44, Mildred Lisette Norman adopted the name of Peace Pilgrim for herself and set off across America on foot. She vowed she would wander across the country until humankind learned the way of peace. She walked every day counting on the kindness of strangers who might give her shelter and food. As a pilgrim, she totally relied on God for her care.
Mildred began meandering across our country and over 11 years she logged over 25,000 miles on foot. At that point, she didn’t quit walking … she just quit keeping a record of her miles. She walked beyond that 17 more years until her tragic death in an automobile accident as she was being driven to a speaking engagement just shy of her 73rd birthday. Imagine that, all those miles on foot and she died in a car wreck!
What led this modest woman to think she could do such a thing without corporate support or the backing of an organization or even the sanctuary of a safe home and a cupboard of food to sustain her? Some said she was crazy, but those who heard her speak said she dreamed of peace.
Here’s the background to her incredible life: Mildred was headed down the path of what we could call a normal life in her 20’s by being married and having a good job and an active social life. But her marriage failed and she was dissatisfied with the treadmill of work in support of a certain expected level of materialism. Her spiritual search led her to the Christian mystics of Ireland and she became like them by becoming a wanderer for God. Mildred knew there was something more she could do with God’s help and she vowed she would do it no matter how big the dream.
Walking one day in New England, she had a vision of herself. “I saw myself in a navy-blue outfit with the words, ‘Peace Pilgrim’ on the front, walking across America,” she said about herself. With that vision, Mildred got rid of all but the fewest of personal possessions and set out. Along the way she spoke to churches, colleges and community organizations. She carried no money and only ate when offered food. When she stopped to rest, if she had no place, she slept beside the road, in open fields, in bus stations or truck stops. On those occasions when she was invited, she slept in the homes of her hosts.
When she began, the United States was fighting an undeclared war in Korea. She walked through the Cold War years and all the way through the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, to that point the longest war in U.S. history.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Are they really so blessed?
I’m curious … why aren’t peacemakers held in higher esteem in Jesus’ churches? Why is it the church isn’t a place of refuge from the impulse to go to war? Why is it if you say a good word for peace, the church will reject you or question your patriotism?
Admittedly, the Bible has its share of wars and violence and the history of wars across time are indelicately linked to religion … but our reading from Isaiah is about his dream of peace in a time of siege. It’s about the dream of peace in a world that seemed anything but peaceful. How else do you describe Mildred Lisette Norman, a simple woman who had a vision of herself as a pilgrim for peace?
It’s been a tough season to talk about peace and the prophet Isaiah drags us, willing or not, into a confrontation of sorts with peace. The prophet’s dream of peace makes us wonder, “Where’s the peace?”
Isaiah the Prophet spoke of a time coming that would be a startling contrast to the world we know today.
How do we know it’s a day that has yet to dawn? He describes a vision of predators lying peacefully next to their prey. An angry lion and a timid lamb lie together as if they’re old friends comfortable in one another’s presence. No fear, no anxiety … only peace.
We simply cannot imagine a world like the one Isaiah describes. Most of us carry around in our brains the kill scenes from Wild Kingdom. Maybe it’s as simple as the brutality of your house cat that drops a half-dead sparrow on your back porch as an indication of a hunter’s prowess. Somehow the prophet sees a world that none of us have yet seen. All we know is what is, not what will someday come to be.
Nineteenth-century painter and Quaker Edward Hicks made over 60 versions of his famous painting, The Peaceable Kingdom, a widely loved painting depicting these poetic images from Isaiah 11. What’s interesting to note is that over time, as he became more disappointed with the conflicts in the world around him and the predators he painted became more ferocious and less peaceable. Perhaps that’s the way it is with us, Paul Duke noted, “Painting by painting, the miracle look(ed) harder and harder.”
Our problem is in recognizing the peaceable power God wants turned loose in the world. But we live in the awkwardness of an in-between time. The gospel good news of Christ has been set loose in the world but his full and perfect power hasn’t. Will peace be a dream that drives us or will it be just a pipe dream we scoff at as the dream of fools? If we are the believers in God’s power to create a peaceable kingdom, we are given work to do.
That’s our work as believers. Pope Paul VI said it plainly, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
We’re meant to be witnesses for a day that’s yet to dawn! As partners in the Tri-Faith Initiative, we’re in the perfect setting to seek peace, preach peace, and live boldly for peace’s sake.
May we yearn to live differently by believing less in the wild kingdom than in the peaceable kingdom God wants to bring about with our help.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron 2022
 Chuck Warnock, “Remembering the Woman Who Walked for Peace,” 10/20/2010, www.ethicsdaily.com/remembering-the-woman-who-walked-for-peace-cms-16878
 Paul Duke, “The Lion and the Lamb,” quoted in Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XIII, Number 1, pg. 13