January 17, 2021
Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2021
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
In a beautiful description of the first peaceful transfer of power in the United States, George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton that he wants to retire. “Like the scripture says,” the first president dictates, ‘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].”
In writing the musical, Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda found that President Washington quoted this line from the prophet Micah[ii] in many of his letters[iii]. Washington hoped that soldiers wouldn’t have to fight forever, but that every one of the patriots could one day step down from the fighting, and sit in safety in their own plot of land. He dreamt of the day that he too could return to Mt. Vernon, and trust that the work he had done would live on in the future of the country: that leaders who followed him would carry out the ideals of the new nation and that he could rest under his own fig tree in peace.
There are a few references to fig trees in the Bible[iv], frequently pointing to this same image. When God’s ways are being practiced, people feel secure and at peace. Each one would have a home, would have even a garden in which they could rest and find shade. Each one would have a source of sweetness and would live in safety, without fear.
It’s not clear that all of that figures in the background of where Nathanael is sitting that day[v] when Jesus calls him. Is the gospel of John implying something important by saying where Jesus sees this disciple? Or is the text simply reminding that God can find us anywhere, maybe even under some random fig tree?
But it makes me wonder. If Nathanael is at rest and safe in his home, feeling assured and at peace, why does he feel a need to go see this Jesus of Nazareth whom Philip is touting? What is he seeking that his own sweet fig tree isn’t already offering him?
Maybe poor Nathanael is tired of sitting under the same fig tree for ten months straight now, and just can’t take it any longer. He’s been stuck at home for so long that anything new sounds interesting.
Or maybe the tree he’s sitting under isn’t producing much fruit and Nathanael realizes he needs something more. Perhaps his life has become unfulfilling for him. The figs no longer taste as sweet as they once did; the branches no longer provide sufficient shade.
Perhaps Nathanael feels a restlessness as he looks around and notices that while his fig tree offers him security and rest, his neighbors don’t have access to gardens of their own. Things are out of balance, and he feels a need for change.
Or maybe it isn’t really his own fig tree under which he sits. Maybe he sits in the shade of a foreign power. Red-lining and unjust mortgage practices in Bethsaida have kept him and other black and brown people from planting gardens of their own. Maybe he resents that people like him never really had access to the contentment that the fig tree symbolizes.
For whatever reason, Nathanael leaves his tree to see what good could come from Nazareth, and why Philip is so excited about this Jesus he had met.
Today we are living through the rockiest transfer of power in our nation’s history. Civil unrest and mistrust have turned into outright violence in the last ten days. Not ready to let go of their own delusions, a sizable number of our fellow citizens have decided to disregard the election, claim their own power, and try to overthrow the electoral process. The president has been impeached for the second time in twelve months, this time for inciting an insurrection, and his supporters aren’t taking it quietly.
Meanwhile, we continue to reel under a pandemic unlike anything we’ve ever imagined, mourning the loss of nearly 400,000 of our neighbors. We have reason to be afraid. This is clearly not the peaceful transfer of power George Washington modeled.
The fig tree under which we thought we were sitting has turned out to offer us a false sense of security. Though some of us are fumbling in our attempts, we’ve been forced to wake up to the blatant racism, the persistence of obvious falsehoods and the perversion of justice being practiced in the name of freedom. We are discovering the need to leave the pretense of peacefulness in our gardens and stand up to the abuse of power around us.
If it’s hard to know for sure why Nathanael left his fig tree, it’s harder to understand how he recognized Jesus so completely. But it has something to do with the fact that Jesus already knows him. Like the woman whom Jesus will meet at the well who confesses, “He told me everything I have ever done,” Nathanael realizes that Jesus knows not just where he’s been sitting, but knows him fully, perfectly and completely, as only God can know us. Nathanael joins the growing team of Jesus followers, and leaves his sitting under a fig-tree days of false security behind.
The way John tells the story reminds us that Jesus’ call connects us to others. The disciples are called into relationship. In the city of Peter and Andrew, Philip extends the invitation to Nathanael. Jesus himself is part of the family of Joseph. And, though you can’t tell it in the English translation here, when Jesus tells the fledging group that they can anticipate seeing greater things, he uses the plural form of “you.” He calls them into a restored beloved community, in which God’s love and truth will be revealed to them in relationship with him and each other. Like the ladder reaching down to earth in Jacob’s dreams, Jesus will himself bridge us into the love of God for all people.
Tomorrow the nation will honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the 92nd anniversary of his birth. His 1963, “Letter from Birmingham Jail[vi]” was written in response to comments he had received from eight white clergy from Birmingham who had encouraged him to turn down his rhetoric and wait for the courts to rule for justice.
King responded with an appeal to the early followers of Jesus. Just as the first disciples had brought life-changing, society-transforming, new ways of living into every community they entered, so Dr. King longed for the church today to openly strive for justice wherever it operated. His non-violent movement confronted the racist oppression and discrimination embedded in American life, and called on the church, the state, and the people of this country to take a stance for justice.
In the portion of the letter we read this morning, we hear his call to leave behind the false pretenses of peacefulness, and let the radiant stars shine love over us all. Dr. King called on his white colleagues to join him in following the way of the cross, finding life and peace and goodness not in complacent acceptance of the status quo, but in working for the God-given promise of each person being fully known, and valued and empowered to participate in the life of the nation. It is not until all of us can sit under our own fig tree, Dr. King would remind us, that any of us will really find true safety, freedom, and rest. The life into which Dr. King was calling us would itself be life in community, in which we all work for the common good of each of our neighbors.
It’s been over 50 years since his death, and the church is still struggling to live up to his call. The insurrectionists waving Christian flags and calling on the name of Jesus as they inflicted violence in our capitol witness to our failure to have done so.
Could this be the year we finally take up his mantle? Could we use the unsettling reality of these last ten months to wake us up to his message? Could we use the horror of these last ten days to pull us into the truth and goodness God comes to bring us all? Could today be the day we at last see the “clouds of racial prejudice” and the “deep fog of misunderstanding… lifted from our fear drenched communities?” Could tonight be when the “radiant stars of love” shine over our nation and indeed the world God so loves, with “scintillating beauty”[vii]?
Jesus sees us: sees where we’ve been sitting all this time, knows what we’ve been hiding from, knows what we’ve been longing for, knows what we’ve been afraid of, and knows what it means for us to be loved by the God of the whole world.
Jesus calls Nathanael and all of us into a life in which we will see great things, in which we will be fully aware that when we are in community with others, when we work for the freedom and goodness of each of God’s children, we will discover that we are in the very presence of God. And then, and only then, will we all be at peace, and be able to sit under our fig tree, and no one will make us afraid. Because we’ll all be safe, and valued and known, in this one world God has made.
Let it be so. Let it be so soon. Let it be so now. Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: An America Musical. Performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Phillipa Soo, and Jonathan Groff. Atlantic Records, ©2015.
[ii] Micah 4:3-4, “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.”
[iii] George Tsakiridis, Ph.D., “Vine and Fig Tree,” George Washington Library, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/vine-and-fig-tree/
[iv] Zechariah 3:10, “On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree.” I Kings 4:25, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.”
[v] John 1:43-51, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
[vi] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” copyright ©1963.