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Laying Down the Burden of Might

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Micah 4:1-5

The passage of scripture I’m about to read exists almost word-for-word in two different places: in Micah 4 and in Isaiah 2.  “Micah and Isaiah are contemporaries, both prophets of the 8th century BCE, and both concerned primarily with issues of justice and integrity before God in a time of social inequality and hypocritical worship.”[1]  The leaders—both political and religious—were self-serving and corrupt, and they exploited the people, especially the poor.  (Which is all a good reminder that the Bible is timeless!)  In both Micah and Isaiah, the previous chapters go into great detail about the spiritual failings of the people of Judah, and the destruction that is coming or has already come because of those sins.  Then Micah and Isaiah both go on to give this oracle or prophecy, although Micah’s ending is different.

Here is the passage from Micah 4:1-5.

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 God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. The Lord 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.

Okay, so the people have been rebellious and corrupt, and the result of their corruption is they’ve been ravaged by war.  Both Isaiah and Micah have said, Yes, you’ve been horrible.  And yes, your current situation is horrible.  There is no denying the damage you have caused,           and the difficulty you are in.  But In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” The mountain of the Lord’s house, also called Zion, “is Judah’s moral center, point of orientation, and locus of worship.”[2]  It is not the highest mountain around.  It’s a hill, basically, with the temple on top.  God is saying that, metaphorically, Zion, where the people worship, will be the highest mountain, standing above all others.  The other nations will see this mountain, this religion, this God, and they will be so drawn to worship God that they will flow toward the mountain like a river.  “Nations known for war will come now to this house and household of Jacob not to conquer or plunder, but to learn God’s ways.  God’s teaching, torah, is new for them, and will soon replace the knowledge of war.  To make this possible, God will judge between the nations, deciding cases for the many and the mighty.”[3]  But God “does far more than don the robes of a judge here; [God] issues the clear word of Justice for all of God’s people.”[4]  “Nations will bring to Jerusalem their desire and hunger, need and hurt, greed and grievance, and submit them to the authority of the One who is able to make peace, bridge division, and resolve conflict.”[5]

All of these nations will be drawn to God, and God will mediate between them and bring them peace.  They will have no need for weapons.  They will not need to study the tactics of war.  The sword would no longer be used to pierce flesh but would become the cutting blade of a plow.  And the spear would prune bushes to help them yield more fruit.

The vision might have stopped with the destruction of the weapons, “shattered to bits, robbed of the power to destroy.  But it doesn’t….It is a vison of transformed and transforming capacity.”[6]  It is a vision that says “I’m going to take all the creativity and ingenuity that was used to make weapons, and I’m going to transform it so that your creative energy is used to sustain life rather than take it.”

Is this not a beautiful image, an amazing prophecy?  Can you see why we have these same words twice in our scriptures?  Can you imagine how these words must have felt to a devastated people?

But . . . anybody who knows anything about the history of Israel knows that this vision has never come true.  At least not yet.  Were Micah and Isaiah delusional?  Were they Pollyanna prophets?  Were they just giving pep talks unrooted in reality?  And if it didn’t happen for them, why would we think that it could happen for us?

“This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools, images of death-dealing turned into food-producing is a promise for ‘the days to come’ [which could mean in our future, in the future of this world, or in the future realm.]  Biblical visions in both testaments come to us from the future, longing to shape the days in which we are living.”[7]  God gives us a vision of what can be in the future in order to shape what is today.  God gives us a vision of what can be      in order to shape what is.  “God won’t abandon us to our own limited . . . vision for the future.”[8]

We live in a society, in a country, in a world, with limited vision.  We have a limited vision of what we can accomplish, what we can do together if we will only work together instead of dividing, always dividing, into us and them.  We have a limited vision of equality, choosing to believe that everyone has the same opportunities, never admitting how we benefit from the deck stacked in our favor.  We have a limited vision of peace, shalom, thinking it means only absence of war instead of the presence of wholeness and completeness within ourselves and with one another.  We have a limited vision of our own capacity for change, our own ability to make a difference, our own agency in the world.

And we have a limited vision of power.  We think power is the ability to have what we want, whatever we want.  We think power is the ability to control others.  We think power is like pie, with limited pieces to go around. We think power is military might and we think only might will keep us safe.  We think power is control, seeing only “power over” instead of “power with.”  We suffer from limited vision of power, thinking it is might, not right.  We suffer from limited imagination.

I remember one time years ago when my son found a stick.  It was a very special stick.  I have no idea why, but apparently it was different than every other stick in the yard.  And Joshua insisted on bringing the stick into the house with him.  The problem was that when he tried to think of things to do after coming inside, he couldn’t think of anything that didn’t involve the stick.  Every idea of what to do cast the stick in a prominent role, and none of these ideas were pleasing to his mother.  As long as he held the stick, his ideas could not move beyond it.  He had to lay it down before he could consider any alternatives.  Before he could read, before he could dance, before he could sing,       he had to lay down the stick.

I am afraid that in our country today, we suffer a failure of imagination.  We are too busy turning our plowshares into swords to notice the world is starving.  God offers a vision of another day to show us another way in this day.  Unlike the people of Judah, we do not need a vision that all people must come to our mountain in order to be at peace.  We can stand on our holy site and recognize another’s holy site    and be at peace because we are all children of the same God.  We all can worship on our own mountain, without might telling us our mountain must be higher.  We all can sit under our own vine and fig tree.

I am guessing that when I read the passage earlier, the ending was familiar to some of you but not from the prophet Micah.  You recognized these words because of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the author and composer of the musical Hamilton.  George Washington is telling Alexander Hamilton that he is stepping down, not running for president again, and Hamilton is distraught.  Washington was Hamilton’s mentor, his defender, the father he never had.  Hamilton argues, but Washington says that by stepping down, he will teach the country how to say goodbye.  Hamilton says, “Why do you have to say goodbye?”  Washington replies, “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.”

Although Washington did not use these words in his actual farewell address, in real life he used them often, almost fifty times in known documents.  In the scriptures it meant that the poor farmer would not be overrun by military oppression, that might would not take up his right to exist.  Washington undoubtedly had this meaning in mind in the years during and after the American Revolution.  The phrase was also “connected to tolerance of immigration to America.  A reference to this effect can be found in a 1787 issue of the New-York Journal, alluding to the idea of the oppressed of other nations having a place to go for refuge.

The phrase is also notably found in a well-known letter that Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island.  In the letter, Washington proclaimed, ‘May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”[9]  Washington used these words from the Hebrew scriptures to speak to a Hebrew congregation, ensuring them that the separation of church and state meant that they would live in safety here.

Unfortunately, that has not always been true, nor is it always true now.  But it is a vision to which we can strive.  Let the vision of what can be change what is.  And it starts where most change starts: within us.  I once tried to give up violence for Lent—violent movies and TV shows, violent imagery and language.  I thought it would be easy—I’m not a violent person and dislike violent movies.  But it was hard because might has infiltrated our entire lives.  Consider where in your life you have power.  And don’t say “nowhere.”  You have power somewhere, with someone.  Now look at how you use that power.  Is it power over or power with?  Let me give you an example.  Most of you have met my son.  You know he requires a firm but flexible hand.  When you say to him “here’s the line,” he sometimes honors it and other times jumps over it and says, “That line back there?”  As his parent, I have power over him.  I often need to remind him that he is not in charge.  But I also have to share my power with him.  I have to teach him power with, so that he learns what to do with power, so that he will not become a power-over kind of man.  That’s too big of a burden for him to carry.  It’s too big for you, too.  So give it up.  Lay it down.  Lay down the burden of might.  Might doesn’t make right.  But love does.  All the time.

Please join with me in the unison prayer printed in your bulletin.

UNISON PRAYER

God of Lightness and Love, free us from the burden of believing that might is right or that violence is the best response. Give us the courage to promote peace, embrace gentleness, and foster compassion.  Help us to take off the armor that keeps us distant and disconnected from your beloved children, so that we might live in peace.  Amen.

 

[1] Gaiser, Fred. “Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5.” www.workingpreacher.org

[2] Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5” workingpreacher.org

[3] Portier-Young

[4] Holbert

[5] Portier-Young

[6] Portier-Young

[7] Lundblad, Barbara. “Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5.” workingpreacher.org

[8] Blatt, Doug. Advent 1A November 21, 2016. Center for Excellence in Preaching.

[9] George Washington’s Mount Vernon. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/vine-and-fig-tree/

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