A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City Mo., on December 5, 2010.
The Second Sunday of Advent
At 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 in 1953 and over the next eleven 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 dies 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; and on those occasions when she was invited as a guest, 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.” 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? No doubt 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 the 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?”
Like his predecessor President Bush, President Obama made a secret, unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Friday seeking to visit the troops and to work on smoothing over a troubled relationship with President Hamid Karzai while taking stock of a nine-year-old American-led war. Obama has announced he hopes to begin winding the war down next summer, the longest war in American history. Under these conditions, we ask, “Where’s the peace?”
Meanwhile, U.S. warships are sailing in the Sea of China between South Korea and China in a demonstration of power meant to snuff out the urge of North Korea to shoot more missiles across the border into South Korea. The presence of American warships is meant to goad the Chinese into pressuring North Korea to stop their aggression. All we can do is ask, “Where’s the peace?”
Back home, a Baptist pastor returned to Independence this week from South Carolina where he now faces first-degree murder charges for shooting to death one of his own members. Mind you, he delivered the eulogy at the man’s funeral as no suspect had been named. There are suspicions the pastor had been inappropriately involved with the victim’s wife. So we ask, “Where’s the peace at church?”
Weeks ago, several thousand good-hearted people of every race, religion, and economic status turned out in Harrisonville (MO) to block the presence of protestors of a certain Baptist church in Topeka. Like they do all over the country, the church had announced their plans to protest at the funeral Corporal Jacob Carver who had been killed in action in Afghanistan. People had had enough and they showed from all to offset the vulgar protest. Fred Phelps’ picketing, protesting hate church needs to hear the message of peace, doesn’t it?
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.
The nineteenth-century painter Edward Hicks made over 80 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, “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! 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.
 Chuck Warnock, “Remembering the Woman Who Walked for Peace,” 10/20/2010, www.ethicsdaily.com/remembering-the-woman-who-walked-for-peace-cms-16878
 Dr. Paul Duke, “The Lion and the Lamb,” quoted in Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XIII, Number 1, pg. 13.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).