“Being at Home in Exile”
A Sermon on Micah 4:1-5
Preached by Matty Strickler
At University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN
February 12, 2017
When I first volunteered to preach today, I didn’t know that the current administration would be in power. In fact, I was quite hopeful that they wouldn’t be. I didn’t imagine that we would be fighting travel bans and deportations. I didn’t foresee the installation of cabinet members so clearly unfit for their posts. None of this was in my head when I first started thinking about this morning’s sermon.
But, there were other things going on, other reasons for despair, other fights for justice. The fight of the water defenders trying to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline was happening. The struggle against police violence and murder were in full force. The rallying cries of, “Water is Life,” “Justice for Philando,” and “Black Lives Matter,” were still ringing in the air.
Those rallying cries are still heard, now joined by chants of “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!” and “No Ban! No wall!” The words may change, the scope of the injustices may broaden or narrow in different periods of time, but the struggle, it seems, is persistent. While this may at times feel heavy and we may find ourselves weary of the fight - and I know that feeling. I have been there - it is also, for me, a source of great hope and inspiration. I am deeply moved when I think of all those who have, through the history of this nation stood up, spoken up, and fought back.
I came of age in the era of Queer Nation and ACTUP when LGBTQ people were taking to the streets and staging die-ins. They raised their voices against a presidential administration that would not even publicly speak the name of the disease that was killing so many amongst them. Even as they were visiting their friends and lovers in the hospital, sitting vigil at their bedsides, and attending their funerals, they were organizing, planning actions, standing up and dying in. They shouted in the streets, “People with AIDS, under attack! What do we do? ACT UP! Fight Back!”
In junior high, I went to rallies and marches against the first Gulf War. We stood together and marched together against military violence shouting, “No blood for oil!” I think I was 12 when I went with my parents to my first Take Back the Night rally, raising awareness of domestic abuse and sexual violence and marching for safer streets. I have marched and chanted for equal rights for LGBTQ people, against wars and police brutality, for workers’ rights, and for the release of political prisoners.
These are just some of the causes that I have been involved with in my lifetime. I know many of you have also been active in these and many other causes. We have members of this congregation who marched at Selma and who survived internment camps. Pastor Doug has been arrested on several occasions in actions of civil disobedience. We are people who know the struggle and for whom, as we say, “The struggle is real.”
We are also a part of a denomination that knows the struggle. Roger Williams was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay colony for preaching a theology that did not align with the established state church and speaking out against the very idea of a state church. In his exile he founded the first Baptist church in America in what is now Providence, Rhode Island.
We are a city and a state that knows the struggle. Minnesota has been home to a number of resistance movements. Most famously, Minneapolis saw a devastatingly violent response to the labor strikes of 1934 where police shot at striking truck drivers injuring 67 picketers and killing two.
And we are a country that has been formed and re-formed by struggle. From the formation of the nation, to the Underground Railroad and the movement to abolish slavery, to voting rights, to civil rights, we have struggled. We continue to struggle.
I chose today’s scripture because one verse from it, “They shall all sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid,” features prominently in a scene from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, of which I am a huge fan. Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and his role in the creation of the United States. Hamilton is himself something of an exile. He was abandoned by his father at birth, orphaned at the age of twelve after watching his mother die. At 17 his hometown in the British West Indies was destroyed by a hurricane and he was sent to the mainland colonies to seek his fortunes. He became first the aide-de-camp to General Washington in the Revolutionary War and then Secretary of the Treasury in President Washington’s cabinet.
The scene in question takes place between Washington and Hamilton and dramatizes the conversation in which Washington informs Hamilton that he will be stepping down and not running for another term as president. Hamilton tries desperately to persuade Washington to reconsider, but finally relents, asking, “Why do you have to say goodbye?” Washington responds with:
“If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.
Like the scripture says: ‘Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree,
And no one shall make them afraid,” they’ll be safe in this nation we’ve made.
This verse was, in fact one of Washington’s favorites - at least one scholarly article has been published examining the use of this verse in Washington’s correspondence. What made it meaningful to him - in that time, in that context is, I believe, the same thing that makes it meaningful to me here, today. So let’s spend some time with it.
The phrase “each under their own vine and fig tree,” appears in two other scripture passages - in the fourth chapter of First Kings verse 25 describes the magnificence of King Solomon’s rule - “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.” And in Zechariah 3:10, after the rebuke of the adversary, the Angel describes the kingdom to come “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.”
Similarly the passage in Micah describes what the world looks like when God truly reigns, when God’s vision for humanity comes into being: People stream to the mountain of God, and strive to walk the paths that God sets out for them. Conflicts among nations will cease, Tools of war will be transformed into tools of planting and harvest, and resources will be fairly distributed so that each may sit under their own vine and fig tree. Only then do we reach the final verse of this passage, verse five in which we “walk in the name of the Holy One, our God, forever and ever.”
All three passages describe a vision of a good and just world - the kingdom that we speak of when we pray “thy kingdom come.” This is what we pray to create “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” We pray for vines and fig trees to sit under and rest. And, as is pointed out in Zechariah, we also invite others to sit with us. This is the living out of the ultimate commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
There are those who believe that the Kingdom of God will supernaturally appear at the time of Jesus’s second coming, amongst shouts of acclamation. One only needs to believe and wait and the kingdom will appear. My understanding of the kingdom and when and where it appears is a bit different. I believe that God invites us to partner with God in the building of the kingdom. God calls us out of our comfort zones and bids us come up the mountain, and it’s no easy hike. It is, in fact, according to the scripture, the highest of the mountains.
This is the push-pull of exile and community that I believe God calls us into. God calls us to create communities, to build churches, to nurture our families. And, God calls us to risk these things, and to move outside of the safety they create.
When I first started doing chaplaincy work in the hospital, I pasted the words “Go to Nineveh!” on the clipboard I carried with me through the hospital. I felt so ill at ease entering into the privacy of patients’ rooms, unsure of what I might find, but more so unsure of what I had to offer. I imagined myself as Jonah, called by God to travel to the wicked city. There were dark days in the belly of that fish, but in fits and starts I began to trust God’s call. And, in doing the work, I learned the work. I learned the power of just showing up. Even when I feared I had nothing to offer, if I could just show up it turned out God would find ways to use me.
The scripture makes no promise that God will make our lives easy, but it does tell us that if we show up, if we do the work of climbing up the mountain, that God will teach us. God will show us the path. That path may not lead directly back to the vine a fig tree though. And yet, my experience has been that there is rest along the path. There are those who have walked it before you who will invite you to stop and sit for a moment under their vine and fig tree. Even as the path leads to the hard work of beating your sword into a plowshare and your spear into a pruning hook there are those who show up for you to help you stand the heat of the tempering fires.
Let’s pay attention here to the specificity of these words, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks.” The scripture does not call us merely to put down our swords and our spears; it calls on us to transform them - to transform them into tools of farming - of creation and growth. It is a call not simply to let go of violence, but to move into creativity, to move into life. We cannot simply let go of what is destructive, we must become creative. We must become the creators of the Kingdom!
So we climb the mountain, we learn from the journey, we walk the path, we transform our weapons into tools, and we use those tools to cultivate our vines and prune our fig trees and we invite others, who are walking their paths to stop and sit a moment. We offer them rest, as others have done for us. We stumble, we fall, and before long we hear the call back up the mountain - a new struggle to engage.
In the midst of each exile, we create home. In the midst of destruction we cultivate life. Here on earth we reach towards Heaven. In the midst of despair we search for hope. What is struggle if not the ultimate expression of hope? Hope for something different, something better than what is now. Hope that someday we will get to my favorite part of this scripture, “And no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” Imagine. It’s almost impossible in this moment, but imagine the creation of a community where no one lives in fear. If we trade violence for creativity, if we heed the call to climb the mountain, if we keep engaging with the struggle, I believe we can get there.
Which leads me back to Hamilton, as most things do. I know this country - built as it is on slavery and stolen land, is far from perfect. And I know that those who created it were not saints. And, perhaps I am prone to too much sentimentality when it comes to American ideals, but it was a country founded with the hope that something better was possible and the imagination and determination to create that something. At the end of the musical, and I’m sorry if this is a spoiler for any of you, Alexander Hamilton dies in a duel with then Vice President, Aaron Burr. Listen to these words spoken on stage by Hamilton in the moment of his death:
“What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.
You let me make a difference.
A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.”
And so, the Holy One calls us to rise up. Each of us is composers of this great unfinished symphony. Rise up, climb the mountain! Each of us planters in this future garden. Rise up and make home! God invites us to do our part to create the kingdom. The sins of our nation are vast, but our legacy is the struggle. Generation after generation - the struggle to do better, to be better, to create a new nation. “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Holy One.” God will keep teaching us to make the paths. There are vines and figs trees along the way. We will walk together in the name of the Holy One. No one will make us afraid, for the mouth of God is still speaking.