Let Your Light Shine
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
23 January 2011
One can make a pretty good argument that the phrase "the city on a hill" has been one of the most influential in American life. It has sure been used frequently in our political discourse the last generation. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Governor Sarah Palin used the phrase often, every time quoting Ronald Reagan rather than Jesus, which always amused me.
Reagan, of course, eloquently used the phrase in his calls for America to look forward with optimism rather than sinking into the malaise which characterizes much of our culture in the 1970's. When Ronald Reagan used the phrase, he was quite clear that he was quoting John Winthrop, the Puritan preacher and twelve-term governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Many historians have argued that Winthrop's sermon is one of the most important and influential speeches in our history, having a profound impact upon the American self-image. The sermon was entitled "A Model of Christian Charity" and was about the love which all Christians should share with each other. It was this love which would bind the community and enable it to be what God had called it to be. Winthrop delivered his sermon in 1630. The story handed down about it is that he preached it to his Puritan congregation while they were crossing the Atlantic. The image is of him standing astride the deck of the ship Arbella, the ocean wind blowing the salt spray into his face as he defined God's mission for that adventurous congregation.
In Winthrop's sermon, the Puritans are the New Israel, called of God to change the world by living out the kingdom of God in this new promised land, an unspoiled Eden. At its best, this image has inspired us Americans to do great things. At its worst this image has led to American exceptionalism and the idea that no matter what we do, we are on a mission from God to do it. This results in triumphalism and imperialism, which is clearly not the original intention of Winthrop, who wanted a community bound together by love.
Nor is American exceptionalism the original intention of Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount. For him the church would be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on a hill, when it lived according to this ethic which would be subversive of the powers-that-be.
More influential on my thinking, was a sermon I heard preached on this passage by one of my childhood pastors, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Field. I, who have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime, can only recall the details of a very few. But Jerry's sermon on this passage is one of them. He was my pastor at the First Baptist Church of Miami when I was growing up. He was one of my mentors, the first person to invite me to preach, at the age of fourteen. There are a handful of Jerry's images, phrases, and themes that have stuck in my memory. Growing up a Baptist, we carried our bibles with us to most religious events, so in my bible from that period in my life, in the margins next to this passage of scripture are my notes from Jerry's sermon.
Jerry was from West Texas, where his family had farmed in the difficult conditions of that region. His sermons were often filled with down home images of farm life. So, when he came to this passage "You are the salt of the earth," Jerry turned to pickling to explain the text. I remember him going into great detail in discussing the process of canning and how the salt would turn a cucumber into a pickle.
There were three points to Jerry's sermon, of course. He preached that salt in the pickling process does three things. It penetrates, preserves, and heals. He then extended the metaphor to encompass our mission as Christians. Just like salt and the cucumber, we are to penetrate the world, work to preserve what is good, and heal what is wrong. It is an evocative, powerful, yet simple image which has stuck with me.
When I was in college I received one of the greatest gifts of my life. Dr. Weldon Marcum who was our pastor emeritus, was suffering with Alzheimer's. It was quite sad to watch this brilliant, eloquent man turn into a confused, quiet person. One day his wife Elizabeth contacted my mother and told her that the next time I was home from college she wanted me to come over to their house because Dr. Marcum wanted me to have his pastoral library. Here I was, still a teenager, in the early years of my ministry, receiving a lifetime collection. I will never be able to measure the worth of that gift.
Contained within that library were many works on the Sermon on the Mount, commentaries from the early and middle years of the twentieth century. One that really stands out is the book The Christ of the Mount written in 1931 by E. Stanley Jones. Jones was one of the great missionaries in the history of the church. He was an American sent by the Methodist church to India in 1907, and he remained a powerful voice in worldwide Christianity until his death in 1973. I was particularly struck by this story which Jones tells:
Years ago when I asked Mahatma Gandhi what we could do to naturalize Christianity in India so that it would cease to be a foreign thing, among other things he replied: "Practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down" – and he had in mind the Sermon on the Mount. It is Mahatma Gandhi's literal insistence upon this way of acting in gaining political freedom that has startled and challenged the whole Western world. He has proved that it is possible, and that is power. This fresh discovery, by a Hindu, of a truth long buried beneath the armaments of the fighting West has been one of the most important spiritual discoveries of modern times. . . . With this challenge facing us, of a non-Christian nation acting, on a wide-spread scale, on one of the most profound principles of the Sermon on the Mount we have now no alternative but to be Christian according to this pattern, or cease to be Christians in any effective sense at all. We must now cease to embalm it. We must embody it – or abdicate.
In the same decade Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was later martyred by the Nazis, wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, the book contains Bonhoeffer's reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. It is a powerful Christian witness and one of the books that continues to deeply influence and convict the church.
Bonhoeffer who knew a lot about what it meant to live according to the Sermon on the Mount. He experienced first-hand how living the ethics of Jesus could bring one into confrontation with the powers-that-be. At a time when many people kept quiet or hid for their own survival, he wrote with passion about what it meant to be the "light of the world" and a "city on a hill":
The followers [of Jesus] are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world – otherwise it would not be discipleship. . . . Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.
Here from the 1930's come two challenges to the Christian church. One comes from the Indian independence movement, which was the first major social movement to take its organizing principles from the Sermon on the Mount. That in itself stands as an indictment upon Christian history, as Stanley Jones himself understood. The other challenge is from a Christian pastor who was martyred by his ostensibly Christian nation because he too lived by the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. What does it really mean to be salt and light? How can we live the good life that radiates out, affecting the world around us?
For one thing, we have to "let is shine." The old spiritual, which we will sing in a moment, encourages us that despite whatever darkness or difficulties we face, and no matter how small or feeble our little light might feel in the moment, we should "let it shine."
And our little light gains power and influence when it is combined with other little lights, so that together the church might be the shining city on the hill. One of the first great interpreters of the Sermon on the Mount was St. John Chrysostom, who preached on these passages for his urban congregation in Antioch in the fourth century. Chrysostom contended that in the Sermon was a comprehensive vision of human life and society. Here was all that one needed to live the virtuous life, and that that virtuous life would be lived in new Christian republic fashioned upon the teachings of Jesus. For St. John, [note, the rest of this sentence is paraphrased from Margaret M. Mitchell's essay on Chrysostom in The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries] Jesus introduced a new politics which called humanity to a new homeland and a "provision for a higher life."
One recent theologian who often used this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and the images of salt and light is the Anglican John R. W. Stott, who was also one of the founders of the modern evangelical right and its profound influence on politics and culture. Though I have profound disagreements with most everything John Stott has taught, I couldn't help but resonate with some of his teaching on this particular passage.
Stott claims that what we get here is "Jesus' picture of God's alternative society." Just like Chrysostom argued, we are to form a counter-cultural society. But Stott was also clear that Jesus was teaching that we couldn't withdraw from the wider world, "Christians are not to remain aloof from society," he wrote, "but are to become immersed in its life." But while engaging actively with the world, we are to live differently because we are made different in Christ. In his 1978 book Christian Counter-Culture, Stott wrote:
[If the church accepted Jesus'] standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counter-culture.
So, now maybe you realize that I've assembled a chorus of voices speaking to us from different times, different places, even different theological perspectives. The urban pastor in ancient Antioch to a farm boy from West Texas. From the Indian independence movement led by a Jesus-inspired Hindu to the modern evangelical right. From the ships bringing the Puritans to a new world. And from a martyr witnessing against the Nazis. But they are all telling us roughly the same thing.
Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. If we live as Jesus taught us to live, then we will fashion a new kind of people. And that new kind of people will be a witness to the world that something different, something wonderful, something marvelous is happening. Let it Shine!