February 9th, 2020
Having been at sea for many weeks, they were finally nearing the new continent. Being that this was 1630, there were no cell phones with games, no kindles with a virtual library, not really even cheap paper backs or magazines. This group of Puritans had left England, chartering the ship the Arbella and making for the Massachusetts Bay colony. The reason for this voyage was not for the sake of adventure and exploration. Rather, these colonizers were fleeing religious persecution. One year earlier, in 1629, King Charles I of England began a crackdown on what was considered “nonconformist religious thought.” The Puritans, who maintained that the Church of England was not fully reformed and not truly free from the vestiges of Catholicism, got their name for their desire to purify the Church. Thus they fell directly under the sanction of this persecution, which did see some whipped and indefinitely imprisoned for publishing and distributing “anti-episcopal pamphlets.”
It was as the Arbella, full of Puritans seeking to establish a life where they could practice their faith freely, neared the colony, John Winthrop is purported to have delivered his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” in which he says that these colonizers will be “as a city upon a hill.” They were all well-versed in scripture and would’ve known this was a reference to the passage we heard today. You are salt, you are light, you are a city on a hill. In full, that section toward the end of Winthrop’s sermon reads: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”
JFK and Reagan and half a dozen other presidents of this country have invoked that Winthrop image to talk about the United States as this city on the hill, a shining beacon for all the world to see. A moral exemplar among the nations. For Winthrop and the Puritans, they certainly were envisioning a new way of living in community, and they did have in mind that others would pay attention to what and how this small new settlement did.
However, not all share this same vision of what the United States is. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes points this out with forceful eloquence in his poem “Let America be America Again.” The first couple stanzas read:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
To be clear, that America Hughes describes, the one that is a fantasy of perfect equality and freedom, is always there to some degree or another. Lately, it seems we are seeing more of the “never was” America that Hughes describes, that isn’t what it purports to be to far too many people. And the line about “where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme” cuts particularly close after the week’s impeachment acquittal. City on a Hill…
Despite how others have used this scripture from Matthew, the truth is that our allegiance is ultimately to God, and that being the “light of the world” or the “salt of the earth” or a “city on a hill” these are not bound by nationality, but by one’s fidelity to God. This is what Jesus is pointing out, that when we live lives of kindness, and act with integrity, and pursue the good of those who, like Hughes, do not see the promised opportunity and freedom, then our light points towards God.
Jesus’ message in this sermon was to Israelites living under the boot heel of Rome. Jesus was both reminding them of their identity and calling as God’s people, and urging them to fulfill it, to not give up though the powers around them roiled with corruption and ruled by force. Let Israel be Israel, he saying in a sense. Don’t give up on your faith, on the practices that have brought you this far, that have shaped you into a people with a higher allegiance than who wields humanly power. Hold fast to your identity in the midst of the Empire. Salt and Light.
Fascinatingly, in this passage, Jesus is using the 2nd person plural. This isn’t you “individual” this is y’all. Y’all are the salt of the earth. You all are the light of the world. Take that in for a moment. How does that shift the way you hear or think about this passage? (Solicit answers) While there is good to be gleaned in knowing that we each individually bear the light of Christ in the world, here we get to the crux of it. We are light and salt together. All of us. I wonder if this means we can even fulfill our true calling unless all voices are present and heard; unless voices that have been silenced are given priority in our public and communal life. Unless perspectives that are overlooked are offered as a lens for us all to see through. Cherokee Park has engaged in this work, taking a long, reflective look at our space from the perspective of a person of color. What does our worship, our building space look like from the lens of a child? What does our building look like for those who are disabled?
There is both blessing and challenge in what Jesus is saying. There is—as in covenants of the Hebrew Scriptures—both promise and command. The command is to be true and faithful in our following God. We seek to do this in so many ways when we gather. When we make a corporate confession of our short-comings instead of excusing or denying them. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and receive the vulnerability of others instead of following the dictates of arrogance and mocking those we disagree with as weak or pathetic. We do this when we pray together, instead of crowing. We do this when we stand to sing and affirm God’s law of love instead of pledging unquestioning allegiance to nationalism. We fulfill our calling when he hold high the banner of justice instead of self-aggrandizing newspaper headlines.
What we do when we gather together is both a function of and furtherance of the light and salt which Jesus tells us we are.
We are salt, we are light. This is who we are. It is who God made us to be. Salt cannot lose its saltiness. Light cannot become not light. It shines, and we just have to let it shine in us, not putting up any barriers to it. God remains steadfast with all her people, as God has done from time eternal, and does to this day, shining with and in us, seasoning us with wisdom and the taste for a different kin-dom.