Yesterday, I met with a colleague and a group of parishioners to explore the writings of Isaiah. Isaiah is a prophet whose words we hear often at Christmas and often during Holy Week; he has given us enduring images both of the Kingdom of God and of human degradation.
That morning, we were looking at Peaceable Kingdom, the beautiful set of images in which Isaiah helps us to imagine the world that could be if we all chose to embrace the teachings of God. Isaiah writes,
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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They 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. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
One of the museums near our church is currently displaying Edward Hicks’ painting of The Peaceable Kingdom. It’s a strange painting. On the right, children play among fierce beasts. In the left foreground, panther kittens chase one another around the body of their visibly aggrieved mother. Behind the panthers, a group of Europeans talks with a group of Native Americans. In the distance, the Europeans’ ship floats on the tranquil waters of a river or a bay.
The painting is striking in its ambiguity. Is Hicks suggesting that the Europeans have found the Kingdom of God in entering North America? Certainly, the early explorers were astonished by the scope and bounty of this land, which seemed to promise enough and more than enough for all. But then, there is that ship, which lends a note of menace. Are the Europeans coming to enter the Peaceable Kingdom, or to destroy it?
And we, how do we impact the places and people in our lives who seem to have it all: peace and plenty, joy and love? Do we enter into their grace, do all we can to uphold it? Or do we come as the serpent came to Eden, bearing our own cargo of envy or of bitterness, and tearing down the very beauty that draws us? How can we allow God to make us agents of grace?