Living in the Shadow of the Mountain of the Lord
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
By Paul E. Ellis Jackson
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Peace and Security through Obedience
4 In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
2 and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
3 He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
5 For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
forever and ever.
From the musical Hamilton:
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 the nation we’ve made
I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade
At home in this nation we’ve made
One last time
The new Pulitzer Prize Winning Broadway Musical Hamilton is a brilliant dramatic recreation of the life and times of Alexander Hamilton; chief aide to General George Washington, founding father of the United States of America, major architect of the constitution of the United States and, unknown until recently, a brilliant hip-hop artist and rapper. Who knew? There are many things that attract me to this particular piece of art: The freshness of the music; the density of the lyrics; and the dramatization of the complexity of the founding of our country that stands in such start contrast to the public version that is being peddled by many of our politicians. Our country was founded on compromise and an ability to work together. And Lin Manuel Miranda, the composer, uses hip hop, rap and a variety of musical styles to bring this important chapter of American History to life—AND to highlight the contrast that exists in our political discourse today.
A line that caught my attention early on in my listening to the recording, before I was able to actually see the show in New York last January (I’m a very lucky man) was a line that George Washington used many times in his own writings. Lin Manuel picked up on this for his musical and it’s a beautiful moment in the show. It turns out that Micah 4:1-5 was one of George Washington’s favorite scriptures and he quoted it often. Lin Manuel Miranda pays homage to this in the scene where he has Washington explain his desire to not run for office again and to retire to Mt. Vernon. I’ve put the quote in your bulletins. Washington sings “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 the nation we’ve made. I wanna sit under my own vine and fig tree
A moment alone in the shade. At home in this nation we’ve made. One last time.
So it seems our first president wants to enjoy a bit of the peace and security he’s helped create for our new nation “one last time” before he dies. What is it about this particular verse that Washington found so compelling that it shows up repeatedly in his correspondence? And what about made Lin Manuel Miranda create such a lovely moment in his musical to highlight this particular verse? Well, as fate would have it, Micah 4:1-5 was one of my possible verses for deep exegetical study in my recent Advanced Hebrew Bible class at Phillips Seminary. And what do you know? I chose to use this verse precisely because of my recent experience with it in Hamilton.
The Book of Micah is a treasure. Juan I. Alfaro in his book Micah: Justice and Loyalty, says “the book of Micah has a special appeal for those who study the powerlessness of the poor…This book, as much as some of the other prophetic writings, can be classified as a liberationist work, since as long as oppression has existed there have been accompanying movements that were guided by their own liberation theologies.” It would follow then that the leader of our oppressed colonies could easily see echoes of his own struggles and the struggles of the colonies against the oppression of King George III in the words of Micah.
The first three chapters of Micah are mostly dark and mostly exhortations against the Kings of the day who had turned from Adonai and were worshipping the god of the Assyrians, Moloch, King Ahaz in the southern kingdom of Judah was particularly cruel to his people.. Also, all of the institutions of Judah and Israel; the temple, the government, the judiciary, had turned from the teachings of Torah and were treating the poor of the land in an unjust manner. As I’ve told you before, one of the chief roles of Hebrew Bible prophets was to tell the Jewish people what they needed to hear. And it seems in Micah’s case they needed to hear much. So after three chapters of the “punishing manifestation of God”; “the justification for the punishment and denunciations of power” we finally get to the “Restoration and Salvation: The Great Dialogue.” This is the great passage, also in your bulletin, that begins with In the Days to Come. I don’t normally read the entire scripture within a sermon, but I feel it’s important to get the sense of what is happening here—what is being promised to God’s people if they return to their covenant with Adonai.
“Peace and Security through Obedience
In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.”
Did you hear the promise in those words? It says “in the days to come”. It doesn’t say in the end days or after some great apocalyptic war. It says…in the days to come. This is called an oracle because it is calling for a future event—a future event that has the nations streaming to the Mountain of the Lord and learning the laws of the Lord, the Torah and returning to right relationship with God and God’s people. The passage then turns God into the great arbiter and Adonai will judge between strong nations far away. But the best part for an oppressed people to hear is this: they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. What a delicious promise to any oppressed people. They ain’t gonna study war no more!
Last summer I was honored to spend a few days in the community of Chacraseca in Nicaragua. We of the United States seem to mostly know of Nicaragua through the dealings of the Iran/Contra affair in the 80’s. Remember that time? Our government was selling arms to Iran, illegally, and then using the proceeds to prop up the Contras of Nicaragua. The Contras were actually the illegitimate troops of the Somoza dictatorship that were fighting the Sandinistas, who were attempting to overthrow the Somoza regime and return political power to the people. Most of us in the US know a very stilted and one-sided narrative of this Iran/Contra affair and I’m sure I’ll hear from some of you that the US was trying to avoid another communist regime like Cuba from popping up in Central America. Well, I’m well aware of all of the reasons that we supplied illegal arms and money to the contras. The cold fact of the matter is that there is not one Nicaraguan alive today who did not lose a friend or relative in that horrible conflict. Many still carry the scars and amputations of this immoral action.
I won’t go into any more detail on that part of Nicaraguan history, but I offer it as the “swords” example of my story. To get to the plowshares, we have to have a hurricane first. In fact two hurricanes are pivotal to this story. The first is hurricane is the Great Bahamanian Hurricane of 1772—this hurricane would prove important to Alexander Hamilton’s development and he referred to it often in his writing. It was this hurricane that help prompt him to leave the Bahamas and head for New York City. Yes, folks, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant and one of the founding fathers of our nation. And he was a good American. Go figure.
The second hurricane is Hurricane Mitch which hit Nicaragua in 1998. I spoke with survivors last summer who described a flood of water four to five feet deep washing across the lowlands of Chacraseca and wiping away everything in its path. Leslie Penrose, who you heard speak here a few months ago, had already been working in Nicaragua, but when Mitch hit, she went to the community of Chacraseca to assist two Dominican Sisters from New Jersey who were doing relief work in the area. Thus began a relationship with these communities that flourishes to this day. Here’s the plowshares part. If the money that had been spent on meddling in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, our Shadow Contra war, if that money had instead been spent on plowshares and infrastructure for these communities instead of the “swords” that were bought for the Contras, the devastation of Mitch could have been less severe. It’s fascinating to drive through Chacraseca. All of the roadways are about 10-15 feet under the surface of the fields—they’re like canals almost. You see, the roads weren’t paved when Mitch came through and the run-off was so intense that it simply eroded the roads into the deep trenches and that’s what we drive through. Those of you going to Nicaragua in January will get to experience all of this.
Imagine if all of that money spent on swords had made it into the community leaders’ hands? Paved roads with good run-off would not have eroded away. Homes with solid brick walls and cement floors would not have floated into the sea. Money spent on swords to kill friends, sons, fathers, children, old women, men, humans, could have instead built up an infrastructure that could have better withstood the onslaught of Hurricane Mitch. Money spent so that each family could have its own vines and fig trees that they could sit under without fear of attack from a brutal regime.
If only the Somoza family had listened to the words of the prophet Micah! If only they had come to the Mountain of the Lord for teaching in right relationship! Instead they lived there in the shadow of the Mountain of the Lord. They knew the Mountain of the Lord was right there in their hearts. They knew the right thing to do. But they preferred to live in the shadow of the Mountain and not do a thing to help their people. Not unlike King Ahaz and his people in Judah. Nothing new under the sun, eh?
But isn’t that where we live right now? In the Shadow of the Mountain of the Lord? We know the Mountain of the Lord. We know the right things to do. But it’s just easier to live here in the shadow with the intention of one day ascending to the top and doing what we know we’re supposed to do. I mean, at least WE know where the Mountain is, right? It’s right here! We can see and we can climb it any time we choose. It’s just that it’s such a high summit and we’re not that good of mountaineers. And then we spend all of that time and energy beating ourselves up for not even trying to climb the Mountain of the Lord. It’s tough being human. But it’s even tougher being a Christian.
You know, Alexander Hamilton didn’t get to live under his vines and fig trees. He was shot by Aaron Burr in an archaic ritual of dueling when he was only 49 years old. You know, Moses didn’t get to see the Promised Land, right? And Rev. Dr. Robert Meyers didn’t live long enough to see University Congregational Church become what it is today, right? And Rev. Dr. Gary Cox was taken from us far too soon and he didn’t get to see what UCC is going to become. Hey, even the Rev. Dr. Robin McGonigle and Pastor Paul Ellis Jackson won’t live to see what this place becomes—because the best days of University Congregational Church lie before her. Imagine what University Congregational Church could become if it moved out of the shadow of the Mountain of the Lord and actually climbed up there and lived in Right Relationship with God and one another? What if every member of this congregation really took to heart the plight of the poor? What if we embodied what it means to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks? And best of all, what if we really took to heart what it means for all the people to walk, each in the name of their god…true inclusivity of all the people.
I hope to someday sit under my own vines and my own fig trees and enjoy the fruits of my labor. But until that far away day comes, we have lots of work to do. I’m grateful for this congregation that works so hard and so faithfully to live in right relationship with one and another and that tries each day to climb another step up that mountain—the Mountain of the Lord.