Micah 4:1-4; John 15:1-8; Revelation 21-22
Seven years ago, the Israeli Defense Ministry began investigating the theft of Palestinian olive trees. Black market trade in the trees was growing as Israeli government contractors confiscated and cleared Palestinian land in order to build an 80-mile-long barrier to stop suicide bombers from infiltrating into Israel. It appears that the government contractors were uprooting the trees and selling them to wealthy Israelis and to local town councils for their gardens and parks.
Olive trees are extremely hardy. They can weather great shocks — uprooting, transplanting, sometimes even frost, fire and, of course, flood. When the waters of the Great Flood receded, the Book of Genesis says, it was from a hardy, surviving olive tree that the dove from the ark plucked a silver branch to carry back to Noah as a sign that the land was dry and salvation was near. Some gnarled old olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemene are said to date from the time of Jesus, although that is certainly not true. But there are olive trees there that are among the oldest in the world. And that may be why the olive branch is a symbol of peace — olive trees grow and mature very slowly, they abide, they endure, they outlast just about everything. And they are beautiful.
News of the illegal sale of Palestinian olive trees leaked out after a contractor offered two reporters 100 large trees for $250 each. The reporters also found one ancient tree on sale at a plant nursery for nearly $5,000. An official of the military command was implicated in that transaction. The Defense Ministry, which is in charge of building the security fence, stated that the Ministry pays contractors only to uproot and replant the trees; no one has permission to sell them. The contracts require that the trees be replanted in areas their owners suggest, away from the security zone; however, an Israeli human rights organization reported that these relocations were not taking place.
For the people who buy them, the trees have ornamental value. They have a different value for the people who owned them. They are the lifeblood of Palestinian agriculture, almost the only crop growing on the stony hills of the West Bank that does not need irrigation. The olives are precious. Many Palestinians are unemployed after all the years of violence; their staple diet is bread and olive oil.
According to some estimates, the wall will eventually take the land of 11,000 Palestinian farmers. One farmer complained that 44 of his 50 acres had been confiscated, and he had lost 2,700 fruit and olive trees. His village lost 7 wells, 15,000 olive trees and 50,000 citrus other fruit trees. The Palestinian Agriculture Ministry says that in the two years of fence-building to protect the settlers, over 200,000 olive trees have been destroyed.
The contractors, the soldiers, the settlers, the corrupt officials — none of them, it seems, has read the Book of Deuteronomy. “Seek peace and pursue it,” the Torah teaches. But even if you should fail, “Even if you are at war with a city . . . you shall not destroy its trees” (20: 19-20).
To sit unafraid under your own tree, to rest peacefully under your own vine — in this single striking image, the prophet Micah crystallizes God’s great vision of healing and wholeness for the creation. All the peoples of earth stream to God’s mountain where God presides. God judges them with divine insight. God instructs them with divine wisdom. Thus they stop learning war.
They dedicate themselves instead to the hot, hard and artful work of the blacksmith, pounding swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. And then, when fear is gone, when nothing can harm them, when they too do no harm to anything on God’s holy mountain, they all sit beneath their own trees — their figs, their olives, their lemons — and rest under their vines. The fellowship, the well-being, the harmony, the presence of God is their shade. This, Micah implies, is God’s great shalom!
Do you sense what God’s shalom is like? It seems that many of us do, if polls are to be trusted. A poll I read a few weeks ago reported that of the huge number of Christians in this country who claim to be regular “churchgoers,” nearly 80% say we feel closest to God, most whole and most at peace with ourselves, our neighbors and the universe when we are out in nature, not in church.
And it doesn’t have to be Yosemite or Big Sur to awaken in us this intuition — memory? foretaste? — of God’s shalom. An old Italian guy who lived a few blocks away from us in Somerville had a backyard that couldn’t have been more than 12′ x 14′, but he grew everything imaginable in there, including fruit trees. One was a weird-looking fig under which he abided amiably on Sunday morning and smoked cigarettes as the bells of St. Anne’s church summoned the rest of the neighborhood, including his wife, to mass.
Sometimes when you walked by his corner, only the wispy smoke told you he was there, sitting squarely on his old cane chair, because in the shade his face was the color of fig tree bark. He blended in. At times he seemed to be a plant himself, an old, thick, person-shaped vine with male pattern baldness. The bells would ring all morning — there were three masses — but still he abided, the garden his sanctuary, the fig tree heaven’s tent, and the lazy smoke his incense, rising to God.
You probably have your own version of shalom, maybe a special place that restores you. Your probably have glimpsed the truth and loveliness of creation’s web in some small way and have, as a result, your own story of what it’s like to stream towards God’s holy mountain. My father’s story might be about a hammock in the back yard, stretched between an aluminum pole he painted green and a maple tree that lightening struck years ago and split down the middle. Unable to bear the loss, he bolted it back together. Somehow, it survived, and he lazes about in its shade now and talks to the birds, mistaking himself for St Francis.
Mine is a cherry orchard in the Sabine Hills, north of Rome, a place I once lived and to which I’ll probably never return. On a long sloping hillside, the trees are pruned back to essentials in the early Spring, and all their skinny trunks are painted Smurf Blue. The cold mist that swirls and lifts as the sun comes up and the light changes makes them seem to move, to march in your direction — a squadron of aliens come in peace; a heavenly host.
But perhaps for you it isn’t so much a place or an experience by which God’s great shalom engulfs you. Maybe it’s simply an abiding awareness that this harmonious and satisfying presence is what is finally true about the world — as it was in the beginning in Eden, it is now and ever shall be, world without end. Perhaps you are one of those people who carries around in your body a kind of solidarity with original solidarity, you are blessed with original blessing. Or perhaps you possess the mirror capacity to feel keenly the absence of wholeness, to feel grief well up in you over its betrayal by human self-centeredness and sin.
Last year a friend of mine was watching a news report about punishment meted out to the family of a young Palestinian who had been arrested for the shooting an off-duty Israeli policeman. She was silent as the camera showed the boy’s father turned away, his hands tearing at the hair on his head. She was silent as she watched the bulldozer smash through the walls of the family’s small house. She sat still when it rolled over the debris into the back garden and tore up an olive tree by its ancient roots. When the report ended, there was a commercial. It was about super-sizing your burger and fries. She burst into tears.
Maybe like my friend you are a witness to shalom by your sensitivity or your suffering — you have tears that testify to the reality of consolation, hunger that testifies to the reality of bread, anger that testifies to the reality of acceptance, wounds that testify to the reality of healing.
In the gospel of John, Jesus calls himself the vine and his disciples branches that will bear fruit, if they abide in the vine. The church has often read this metaphor of vine and branches as a reference to holy communion, and especially to the communion cup filled with the fruit of the vine. From ancient times, the cup has stood for the lifeblood of Jesus, blood that circulates vigorously, like the nourishing sap of a vine, through the many branches, making the lives of Teacher and disciples one deep life, lived together, fruitful and strong.
But this is not just a human in-group solidarity thing. When Jesus uses that metaphor to describe the source of a disciple’s fruitfulness — abiding like branches in a vine — we are imaginatively confronted not only with our solidarity with him and other humans, but also with the whole world of nature. To belong to God and to the one who took our flesh is to belong to the earth.
Every Christian ritual of inclusion and incorporation, of universality, affirmation and acceptance, requires us to touch the things of earth, or better said, to let the things of earth touch us. In baptism, we use water (in ancient times it would also have meant the use of oil and salt and beeswax). In our rituals of healing and forgiveness, we often use anointing oil. In the Eucharist, we bless the earth’s precious wheat and the wondrous grape. We light beeswax candles and set out bouquets – the flame and flower remind us that we are not alone, not apart from, not on some other plane, but are ourselves creatures, woven into and dependent upon nature’s wondrous web, inserted deep in the plan of God for the restoration of all things — shalom.
These natural elements remind us that we are not the only stewards on earth. The earth cares for us as much as we care for the earth. It continually offers irreplaceable gifts to our bodies, minds and spirits, mediating God’s peace to us, in small and still imperfect measures, to be sure; but without these gifts, we might never see, taste, smell, hear and touch our God.
In the Book of Revelation, that wild series of visions that brings the Christian Bible to a close, the seer tells us that at the end of time when God’s shalom comes, it will be like a jeweled city with massive walls and gates and towers, with golden streets and many-roomed mansions. It will descend from heaven to earth and be our home. A city? Ah, read on! At the heart of the beautiful city there will be a tree — perhaps an olive? — nourished by a river gushing from the very heart of God.
That tree will produce diversity and healing. Like a kind of divine fruit-of the-month club, it will yield fruit of twelve different kinds. Not one kind for all, but many kinds for many people, something palatable for every taste. The leaves of the tree will be medicinal. They will heal the human heart, but they are meant mostly for “the healing of the nations,” for the good of the whole earth and all its peoples, believers and unbelievers alike, together. Under the canopy of that tree, all creatures may sit without being afraid. It is a tree everyone owns. Nothing and no one is fenced in or out; no one and nothing is cursed, untouchable, or unclean once touched by its shade.
It is hard to speak joyfully about such a tree today, to imagine its promised fruit, its healing leaves; for as we speak there are still guns in human gardens, we bulldoze the thousand-year olive, the wound of earth’s despoiling is opened again and again. If we sing of Easter joy, if we sing of new life, if we believe in the coming holy city with its sacred tree descending from above, if we have felt it, glimpsed it in places and moments of wholeness and peace — in the forest, in the yard out back, in sanctuary of this church, in the sleep of night, in the grief of loss and struggle, in the care we extend to one another; if we hail it at all, it is always with throats choked with tears.
We are called by the God who made us to be witness to God’s shalom without a shred of the kind of evidence the world loves to demand. But this is, of course, why faith, hope and love are required of us. It is also the very definition of our Christian calling to testify – to be so absurd, so brazen, so besotted as to announce to all (weeping, angry, suffering and lamenting all the while) that life is good, that God is even now content with us, that even now we walk in the beauty of the fig and the olive, safe on the dry land of peace; and that all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.
 From an account by journalist, Alan Philips, reporting from Jerusalem, 11-28-02.
There is a place in Maine. Nubble Light in York, where I go and feel the Peace of God. I was living up there years ago just after the leaving the military and going through a pretty hard time. When I went down into the rocks, by the waves of the ocean, I could understand that I was not the only creation that mattered on earth. In fact, seeing the power of the ocean, especially in the winter months, I understood that there was much more powerful things then humankind that existed on earth. Things that we could not control. On those rocks I could feel God’s love embrace me. Even better when I dove in the area and swam with the seals and other sea life it made me new. Yet I see how the tourist pollute and and treat the area poorly just to get a picture. I still do not understand why humans feel we own everything and can control all things. Whether it be Israel building a wall that locks others out others and destroys their land disrupting God’s creation, or the US disrupting things in Iraq. Afghanistan, and so many other places exerting power ina an attempt to gain “security”, humans strive to control God’s creation. It may be time for another trip to Nubble Light.
This is beautiful, Gary, thanks. And heart-rending too.