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Sunday, February 5, 2017

We Are the Light of the World – This is How We Will Shine

Matthew 5: 13 – 20
Isaiah 58: 1 – 12
Psalm 112

Even though Jesus delivered his “Sermon on the Mount” to his disciples, living in first century Galilee, to his disciples who were peasants and poor laborers of Israel, this passage has been frequently cited throughout the history of American political speech craft. It wasn’t about us, had nothing at all to do with the United States of America, but we have, for better or worse, appropriated it as our own.

In 1630 Governor John Winthrop, while still aboard the ship Arbella, spoke to his fellow Puritans as they made their way to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the  “the new world.” He said that they would make a “city on the hill” of their new home, and that both the eyes of the world and the ever present help of Almighty God would be upon them there. (Winthrop “A Model”)

John F. Kennedy used the City on a Hill theme in his last formal address before becoming president in January of 1961:

“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us—and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill—constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.
For we are setting out upon a voyage in 1961 no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arabella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within” (Kennedy  “City upon a Hill”).

President Ronald Regan, in his farewell address after two terms said:

“…in my mind [that city on the hill] was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That's how I saw it, and see it still” (Regan “Farewell”).

President Barak Obama, and numerous other American politicians through the years – Republicans and Democrats alike - have referred again and again to these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (though Reagan attributed the phrase to John Winthrop, not Jesus). But, no matter how much we might want to describe the Unite States of America as this “city on the hill,” we are not.

No nation is. The city on the hill is made up, not of nation states, but of the many followers of Jesus no matter where or when they live, or have lived, or will live. The city on the hill is you. The city on the hill is me. The city on the hill is us – if we are following the precepts that Christ taught, living by this code. It’s not just a matter of intellectual assent to a prescribed doctrine, but an adherence to a standard of living that exemplifies, and demonstrates, and puts into vigorous action the good news of the gospel, a life that brings peace and freedom to everyone around. That city on a hill is a city of light, and peace, and freedom.

In addition to comparing his disciples to a city on a hill, he also said that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. “You are the light of the world,” he said to them. When Jesus said this to his disciples, and when Matthew recorded it in his gospel, for his Jewish audience, they would have remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
(Isaiah 42:6)

and from the second of the Servant Songs (that we read just a couple of weeks ago

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
(Isaiah 49:6)

The people of Israel, God’s chosen people, were to be a guiding light to the nations of the world. And on that mountain side, Jesus repeated the pledge to his disciples. They would be the light of the world. And now, we here this morning take the words as well: we are, or can and should be the light of the world.

We live in the midst of darkness. The darkness surrounds us, envelops us, threatens to overtake us. These are dark and desperate times, filled with the tremors and rumors of war and many, countless troubles – political, economic, racial – both foreign and domestic, far abroad and close at home. There are many who feel that the light has gone out, the candle has been extinguished and they are ready to curse the darkness (to invert the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt). But we are the light of the world and our light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overtaken us. (John 1: 5)

Yes. The world seems dark. Yes the world seems broken. Yes, we might even affirm with singer Leonard Cohen, that “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” (Cohen “Anthem”) We are, like the Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, going to “kick at the darkness ‘till it bleeds daylight” (Cockburn “Lovers”). We’re going to “Storm the Forts of Darkness and bring them down” (Johnson “Storm the Forts") because we are the light of the world.

There is a Jewish tradition originating in the Kabbalah of the 16th century that said when God created the universe he put part of himself into vessels of light – something happened and these vessels of light were shattered, trapping the light of God within the material of creation. The tradition also says that it’s up to us to restore that light. This is called tikkun olam, “repair of the world.” (Karesh 520) It’s a late tradition, yes, that has gnostic affinities, but I rather like the idea that we, each one of us, created in the image and likeness of God, have a splinter – a shard of God’s eternal light hidden within us, and that we can do something to fan the flame of that light in others.

To be the light of the world is to repair the world, it is to restore justice, and to protect those who are powerless. With our prayers and our good works, our acts of righteous justice we can release those sparks of the divine light into this world of darkness. We bring light to the dark world by standing with and alongside the poor and marginalized. We pierce the darkness of the world by rescuing the perishing and by caring for the dying (Crosby “Rescue the Perishing”). We shatter the darkness by sharing of ourselves with those in need, by feeding the hungry, by sheltering the homeless, and caring for the sick. We repair the world and restore light to the darkness by letting the oppressed go free, sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into our house, and covering the naked. Then our light will shine – will break forth like the dawn of a glorious new day. (Isaiah 58: 6 – 8) We are the light of the world; this is how we will shine.

The Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny the Elder said, “Nothing is more useful than salt and sunshine” (Pliny). If we are that city on the hill – the example to the world – then we are to be salt and sunshine to a dark world, the light of the world.

"Jesus bids us shine," (Warner) so let your light shine. Let your light shine so that the people around you might know some kindness again (Schwartz) . Share. Give. Help. Care. This is how our light shines, and how we enliven the spark of that divine light in others.We are the light of the world; this is how we will shine.

Cockburn, Bruce. “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” Stealing Fire. True North Records. 1984.

Cohen, Leonard. “Anthem” The Future. Columbia Records. 1992.

Crosby, Fanny. “Rescue the Perishing.” The Song Book of The Salvation Army. London, England. The Salvation Army. 2015. Print.

Johnson, Robert. “Storm the Forts of Darkness” The Song Book of The Salvation Army. London, England. The Salvation Army. 2015. Print.

Karesh, Sarah E. & Mitchell M. Hurvitz. Encyclopedia of Judaism. New York, NY: Facts on File, Inc. 2006. Print.

Kennedy, John F. “City upon a Hill” Boston, MA. January 9, 1961.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Xxxi, 102.

Reagan, Ronald. “Farewell Address” Washington D.C.: The White House. 1989.

Schwartz, Stephen, "Light of the World," Godspell. 1971.

Warner, Susan Bogert, "Jesus Bids Us Shine." The Song Book of The Salvation Army, London, England. The Salvation Army. 2015 Print. 

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity” 1630. 

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