Under a covered patch of brick in our church parking lot there hangs an enormous bronze bell. It dates back to 1887 and hung in our spire until a structural engineer submitted a report back in the 1960s telling us that might not be a safe place for it anymore. So we moved it to the parking lot, giving the children easy access to ring it most Sundays following worship — a “DONG!” that never ceases to startle some of us.
Yet, old as it is, this bell is not our congregation’s first.
Records show that our first bell was purchased in the 1850s and hung from the belfry of our sanctuary in its previous location. It too was made of bronze — 900 pounds of it — and we might still have it today, except in 1863 our records also show that our congregation voted to send this bell away to be melted down and molded into a cannon to support the Confederate war effort.
I’m reminded of this history each Advent when we read those well-known verses from the prophet Isaiah imagining a time when all the armies of the earth will “beat their swords into plowshares.” Beautiful image as it is, history tells us this side of the Kingdom of God we’re far more likely to do the opposite and beat our plowshares into swords.
And, as it happens, this too is a biblical image. It’s right there in the third chapter of Joel:
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war [the Hebrew actually says “sanctify war”]
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Scholars argue over which image came first: was Joel distorting Isaiah, or was Isaiah subverting Joel? Or could it be that Joel’s image of beating plowshares into swords wasn’t unique to the prophet but was instead simply a popular image? After all, fear makes people incredibly imaginative: everything becomes a potential weapon, even church bells.
This leads to another harsh reality about Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom, which is that odds are we will not see these things come to pass in our lifetime. At least not completely. Dream about it? Of course. Pray for it? Absolutely. But expect it? No. It insults our intelligence, and really our faith, to suggest otherwise. After all, the arc of God’s justice bends over the course of history, not simply our lifetime.
But it would be an insult to the gospel if we didn’t also say that while this vision of the world to come in its entirety isn’t a realistic goal to see in our lifetime, over the course of a lifetime we’re offered many smaller opportunities to bring it about bit by bit, plowshare by plowshare, church bell by church bell.
For our part, over the last two years or so, our congregation has grown in a relationship with the African-American congregation around the corner that split from ours around the time of the Civil War. In fact, we’ve both kept virtually the same name, we the First Baptist Church of Christ and they the First Baptist Church. Though we’re separated by just a few hundred yards, we’ve had very little to do with each other in the 150 years since our parting. We’ve seen to it to change this, and have covenanted to fellowship and serve our community together. This past fall we even began a series of conversations around race and our shared history.
We brought this series to a close on the Sunday before Thanksgiving when we met in our Fellowship Hall for a covered dish supper. It was a beautiful evening of sharing and enjoying each other’s company, as well as our food. We’re already planning what our next step will be.
Now, in and of itself, our coming together in this way is not a big thing. But as I looked around the room that night I couldn’t help but think that in our own way we were taking what had been a sword — our history, our inheritance — and beating it into a plowshare. We were taking what had wounded us for so long, and begun the slow, hard work of turning it into something that would till our souls enough for the Kingdom of God to grow in new ways.
And this may just be the preacher in me talking, but as we were leaving the church that night it seems like I remember some of the children ringing the bell outside in the parking lot, and for a second I thought it was the choirs of heaven rejoicing.
But as I listened a second more, I was sure of it.