Rev. George Miller
Oct 12, 2014
One of the honors of being a pastor is having people share important things from their lives, like a copy of a prayer that pulled them through, the manuscript to a novel they’re working on or an article about someone who meant very much to them.
Recently, I received a reflection about a man named Franz Plunder, a master wood worker who mentored our very own Jack Spencer.
Franz was born in Austria and came to St. John’s College, Maryland in the 40’s as an Artist in Residence. He taught sculpture and fine arts.
His handiwork was well known: strong, beautiful, useful pieces like the walnut study tables for students to write their papers; octagonal tables in the Coffee Shop.
But his true passion was building and sailing boats. Legend has it that Franz single-handedly built a boat that he then sailed with 3 people from Hamburg to NY.
By the time he retired, Franz had built about 10 boats, the last of which he and his wife sailed daily on the lake.
Students recalled him as a romantic adventurer of ideas. He was said to be courageous, resourceful, curious and honest, with a love for life that spilled over into his sense of humor and gift for storytelling.
He loved beautiful things and was a peaceful man; a man who hated war and hated all things military from the bottom of his soul.
And yet Franz became a soldier not once but twice in his life. The first time was as a young man for the Austrian Army in 1914.
The next time was 30 years later, when by his own choice, he left the college to serve with the United States Military Intelligence against the Nazis.
Why would a creative, peaceful man who hated war choose to do such a thing when, at his age, he clearly did not have to?
Because the Nazis had overrun his beautiful, small hometown in Austria. (article by William A. Darkey)
Though I never met Franz, the little I learned about him demonstrates the idea of complexity.
People are complex. The world is complex. Ethics, wars, and religion are all complex.
Rarely are we able to put someone, some thing or some situation into a neat little box in which we can walk away and say “that’s that.”
One can be 100% anti-war, but when the enemy invades your home and threatens your people what do you do?
You can spend your life making walnut tables for people to study and have fellowship, but under threat you might break the table of your enemy.
The story of Franz can perhaps help us to better understand today’s reading. It’s not an easy one.
Isaiah was a prophet writing about 700-740 years before Jesus was born. As a prophet, Isaiah was incredibly plugged into what was going on in his day.
Filled with wisdom, gifted (or cursed?) with eyes that truly see and ears that truly hear, Isaiah saw and heard what the state of the nation was, and it wasn’t good.
After nearly 500 years of living in the Land of Milk and Honey, the people had become complacent and forgetful of their history and of all the wonderful stories about their God.
The local politics and economics of their day were not what it should have been for people who had been led out of Egypt and lovingly planted and watered like a vine.
The people of God had stop doing the things that truly mattered. They had stopped doing justice, they had stopped loving kindness, and perhaps worse of all, they had stopped humbly walking with the Lord.
Because of all this Isaiah wrote them a warning: that if things continued as they were, there were going to be consequences.
God would not be pleased. Their enemy would come in and attack them. Like a vine they will be ripped from the ground.
Isaiah’s prophecy for the people is not a good one. But…all hope is not to be lost, for though they will fall victim to their enemy, God will not let them be permanently destroyed.
God will eventually turn the enemy’s city into a heap of bricks, a ruin never to be rebuilt.
The poor and distressed will find an oasis in God. And upon a mountain God will hold a heavenly BBQ for all to feast upon, featuring rich, fatty food and aged wines.
For me, this reading is a bit odd, because as I understand it, Isaiah is predicting a future event in which the people will suffer, but he is also saying “This too will pass and God will wipe away all your tears, remove the shroud of sadness and defeat your enemies.”
It’s a message to be feared; it’s a message to find great hope.
But here’s where I personally find myself struggling. The notion of ruins, the notion of the enemy’s city being a heap.
I am sure Franz could have understood this back in 1944. I’m sure everyone who is petrified of ISIS can understand this.
When our enemies fall, when those who have tried to hurt us are defeated, it makes sense we would want to celebrate and have a big ol’ BBQ to mark the occasion.
But…but my pastoral heart cannot forget, that in those ruins there are not just bricks but in those ruins there will also be wives and mothers; there will be aunties and nanas.
In those ruins will be the fallen homes with their tchochkes, memories and keepsakes.
The ruins of war will include children, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters, uncles and brothers.
In the heap of the enemy’s city will be front yards and gardens, pets and livestock, and trees that had stood for hundreds of years.
You can’t have a ruined city of the enemy without these things.
And yet if I was an Israelite during the time of Exile, if I was an Austrian during the reign of Hitler, if I was a father in Syria, how could I not want God to step in and do something to stop the enemy’s attack?
Again, the complexity of God: the Shepherd who leads us balanced with the Warrior who protects us.
The Almighty who gathers all people on the Mountain; the Almighty who makes the city a heap.
The Almighty who reduces into ruin; the Almighty who make a refuge for the poor.
This week our sign outside says “In you O Lord we put our trust.”
But in which Lord, in which God, are we trusting?
The Lord who creates, saves and blesses or the Lord who destroys, trods down and curses?
The Lord who wages war or the Lord who acts as a gracious hostess with a meal of fatty food and fine wine?
It’s not so easy, is it?
God, like us, is complex. God, like us, is not limited by labels…
Earlier, I mentioned the traits of Franz, the builder of boats. Listen to some of those traits again:
a sculptor, known for his beautiful handiwork that allowed others to socialize, study, and journey.
A romantic adventurer of ideas; courageous, resourceful, and honest with an appreciation for humor and storytelling.
A lover of peace and beautiful things, who hated war but was a soldier out of necessity and to protect his people and their land.
Is it a stretch of my imagination, but don’t those things sound a bit like the God we’ve been talking about the last 11 weeks?
Don’t those characteristics sound like a God who would create an oasis for an ostracized mother and child, a God who would set slaves free, get a donkey to talk, and who’d lead people into a land of milk and honey?
God is complex. God is not like a character in a Broadway musical or a video game in which you can predict every move.
God is more than just a refuge or a warrior, God is more than just a host or the catcher of tears.
Our God is so great, so limitless, and so mighty that for us, the wrestling match, the struggle, comes in when we are confronted with a scripture like today’s, and we ask ourselves “Just what does this mean?”
Or we give ourselves permission to wonder “Do I agree or not?”
Can we find God in the ruins? Can we find God on the mountaintop? Can we find God in the places of refuge? Can we find God in the abundance of food and plethora of drink?
And even if we never truly get an answer to the questions, can we still find our own way to say “This is the Lord for who we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in God’s salvation.”
Amen and amen.