(Lectionary for August 14, 2016)
In 1630, John Winthrop, leader of the English group that would eventually form the germ of what became the USA, gave a sermon aboard the ship Arbella, sailing slowly toward the New World. In that memorable oration, Winthrop used a phrase that has echoed down the years of American politics. He described the future colony as a “city on the hill” (what became in fact Boston), urging his small, hopeful and terrified followers that they should strive for “communal charity, affection, and unity to the world.” But if they failed, “we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world” by God’s judgment. In short, a denial of and subsequent breaking of the divine covenant would make the colony a nasty joke, a vulgar vineyard, if you will, to the whole world.
And there, in a theological nutshell, lies the whole history of the American experiment on this continent. In ways large and small, in shifting definitions of city and vineyard, we Americans over the past 240 years, or perhaps more accurately the past 400 years, have struggled to act like that hoped-for city, filled with charity, affection, and unity, while too often appearing more like that despised vineyard, characterized by hatred, self-centeredness, and division. Isaiah, 8th-century BCE prophet of Israel would recognize our dilemma.
Isaiah lived in a city, Jerusalem, that for over 300 years had been the political and spiritual center of the land of Israel. Since the great David had captured the city from the Jebusites in 1000 BCE, Jerusalem had been a beacon for an expanding country, filled with a people supposedly called by YHWH for great things in the world. According to Genesis 12:3 YHWH called Abram to become the seed of a “great nation,” and then proceeded to define greatness as being “a blessing to all the nations of the world.” But over the succeeding years of Israel’s life, blessings to others had become a distant and nearly forgotten demand. In the life of king David itself, the nation witnessed a man more thug than divinely ordained ruler, stealing a man’s wife, murdering the aggrieved husband, lying about the entire affair. His son Solomon was little better, taxing his people unmercifully to feed his gigantic ambitions for power and splendor, living the royal high life while many of his subjects fell under the sway of the expanding state bureaucracy, becoming increasingly impoverished while the court and its minions grew rich.
Such excesses led to the rise of the prophets, first Nathan who admonished David for his denial of YHWH’s covenant, then Elijah and Elisha in the 9th century with their rejections of the power grabs of Ahab and Jezebel, then the long string of writing prophets: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah in the 8th century, Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the 7th, and a host of others, all called by YHWH to cry again and again that Israel, then Judah, had lost their way, refusing to follow the call of their God. The problem was always the same: Israel refused to pay attention to and to help those in their midst who could not, for whatever reasons—poverty, oppression, forced immigration, war—help themselves. They “shoved aside the needy in the gate,” cried Amos; they did not “rescue the oppressed, nor defend the orphan, nor plead for the widow,” shouted Isaiah; they simply “do not know the way of YHWH,” boomed Jeremiah. The vineyard that was Israel was weed-filled, broken-down, and finally unproductive.
Isaiah makes the point with an unforgettable poem in 5:1-7 of his book. YHWH called Israel “God’s beloved” and gave them a wonderfully fertile vineyard on a marvelously rich hill. YHWH cleared the place of stones, planted the finest vines, built a watchtower to protect it, scooped out a wine vat to receive the produce of the vineyard, nothing less than the finest of grapes (Is 5:1-2). Instead, nothing but useless and foul- tasting fruit came from this vineyard. YHWH determines that nothing else can be done but to decimate the vineyard, tear down its protective hedge, break down its sheltering wall, rip out its vines, allowing it to become a trampled down waste, a place for briers and thorns, barren and forgotten. The prophet summarizes the problem with two shocking Hebrew puns: from the wonderful vineyard YHWH expected “justice” (mishpat) but instead received “bloodshed” (mispach), and instead of “righteousness” (tsdakah) received a brutal “outcry” of injustice (ts’akah) (Is 5:7). This vineyard has become vulgar, common and appalling, indeed.
Still, here is the fact of the matter in 2016: America is at the same time a city on a hill, replete with wonderful ideals about community, unity, and affection, and a vulgar vineyard, riven by discord, disunity, and hate. No one can deny this harsh reality. Just as Winthrop’s first colony in Massachusetts Bay, modern America is still, and perhaps will always be, a nation yet to be. We are inevitably city on the hill and vulgar vineyard together. We will never become the former in full—we are after all too human for that— but we must never allow ourselves to become the latter no matter how often Donald Trump tries to convince us that we are, namely degraded, disintegrating, and derelict. Our goal as Americans is to strive always and again to match our reality with our ideals, knowing that we will fall short but working toward that goal nevertheless.
Christian theology has long known this truth, though has regularly forgotten it: we humans are, now using Luther, “simil justus et peccator,” at one and the same time justified and sinful. We are both loved by God and commanded by God to recognize our vast shortcomings. This should draw from us a rich humility, a clear recognition that we will never be all we wish we were, will never act purely and selflessly, as much as we know we are called to do just that. At the same time, we also know that God is forever calling us beyond our obvious sinfulness to something better, something higher, something more like selflessness and purity. We will not move toward the city on the hill by focusing only on ourselves and our country a la Trump. We can only inch toward that city and step away from that vineyard by embracing the fuller meaning of Winthrop’s old call for community of all, affection for all, and unity with all. Our election choice then is clear. We simply cannot vote for anyone who denies these basic elements of a genuine city on a hill, and as I see it, Donald Trump does precisely that. Take these wonderful metaphors with you this November into the quiet of your voting booth, and vote accordingly.