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Worship and Sermons
Feb. 5, 2017

 

“The Shining City on a Hill” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / 5th Sunday After Epiphany - Isaiah 58:1-10  •  Psalm 112:1-10  •  1 Corinthians 2:1-16  •  Matthew 5:13-20

THEME:  Jesus calls us to salt the earth, seasoning life and shining his light individually and collectively for all people through our good works, especially on behalf of the least.

 

          Have any of you ever done any genealogical work?   

          A couple years back, Beth and I decided to plunk down $150 to join Ancestry.com.  We’d both been doing some genealogical work through the years and found it exciting.  We heard somewhere that Ancestry.com had gotten access to a host of new historical documents.  Best of all, they’d been digitized and could be searched.  So we joined.  It was a great investment.

 

          We were soon discovering bits and pieces of census information, property records, even pictures of relatives who had previously been nothing more to us than names on our family tree. 

 

          I found the street address and was able to see the actual building in Brooklyn where my great grandfather lived and operated a hardware store.  We even found a wonderful, candid photograph of him and his wife from the 1880s.

 

          I had even more luck on my mother’s side.  I was able to trace her Scots-Irish ancestors, the Alexanders, all the way back to Northern Ireland in the 1600s.   

 

          I know a number of you also have Scots-Irish ancestors.  You know their story.  These Ulster-Scots had a very tough time in Ireland.  They were victims of economic and religious persecution, by both the indigenous Irish and the English Crown.  They and their families suffered horrific violence.  It wasn’t more than a generation or two, before they were seeking refuge in America.

 

          They’d heard about the remarkably success of the American colonies, especially John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony.  That was proof that there was real economic opportunity and religious freedom here.  They were no doubt inspired, as many have been since, by Winthrop’s famous sermon preached to the Puritan settlers of Boston in 1630.

 

          The title of his sermon was “A Model of Christian Charity.”  It’s based on our Isaiah passage as well as my favorite verse from Micah, and, of course, this morning’s gospel text from Matthew.  Do you remember reading that in school?  I invite you now to listen again to what he said:  

          "The only way … to provide for our posterity is to follow the Counsel of Micah, to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God; for this end, we must be knit together in . . . brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others' necessities, … we must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, …

          “[If we do so] the Lord shall dwell among us and … make us a praise and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: … Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”    

          It still gives me goose bumps.  I don't know about you, but I think he’s captured the essence of both this morning’s readings.

 

          In Matthew, Jesus picks up his Sermon on the Mount where we left off last week.  He commands his disciples and followers to do the good works he’s just described in the Beatitudes we read last Sunday. 

 

          You’ll remember, these are the commands to help the downtrodden, and those in need.  Isaiah gets even more specific.  We are to loose the bonds of injustice, free the oppressed, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your home, clothe the naked, and help your kin folks when they’re in need.

 

          Let’s remember that these commands aren’t just in the prophets – they’re liberally sprinkled throughout the Jewish Law.  They cover more than personal holiness.  They’re how God requires his people to treat one another and, most remarkably, the down and out, even strangers.

 

          So, in the law, we read things like, ‘Don’t deprive the orphan and the widow of justice,’ ‘Treat the alien who lives among you as a citizen, because you, too, were aliens in the land of Egypt.’ ‘When you harvest your crops, leave some for them.’  And on, and on. 

 

          I think we sometimes forget just how radical these ethical commands were.  In the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century, such concern for the well-being of the poor and powerless was almost unheard of.  If you had wealth, status or power – you used it to your own advantage.  If you didn’t have those things – well, at best you sold yourself as a slave to someone else who did.

 

          That’s why Jesus says to his followers they are a city on a hill, and a light that shines for all to see. He’s not telling them to get rid of the law and all its ethical commands. On the contrary, the law is fulfilled in his life and his teaching. 

 

          Before long, he’ll sum up all of the law, and all of the prophets in The Great Commandment:  Love God with your entire being and your neighbor as yourself - especially those neighbors whom he calls 'the least.' 

 

          If his followers are faithful in obeying his command, they'll be like salt that seasons the whole world, and a shining city on a hill for all to see.  Clearly, he means this to be both an individual and collective commandment.

 

          That’s what John Winthrop picked up on.  He wasn’t the last leader to do so. President John F. Kennedy used this metaphor to describe our country.  Even more famously, so did Ronald Reagan.

 

          In his farewell address from the oval office in January, 1989, out-going President Reagan said, "I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. … In my mind it 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.'"

 

          Regardless of our political leanings, I think we’d all agree that, these are moving and inspiring words.  

 

          The image of our nation as a Shining City on a Hill has been an inspiration and a magnet for people from all over the globe who would be part of it.  Certainly that was true for my ancestors who emigrated here.  I imagine it’s true for yours as well.

 

          But, I wonder about those folks around the world today who are seeking refuge here because they, and their families, are suffering economic deprivation and violent persecution in their home countries - especially those fleeing from majority Muslim countries being torn apart by terrorism and war.  I suspect they might be having a hard time right now discerning the light coming from our shores.

 

          Frankly, the same is true for those who are already here.  Although, thankfully, hate crimes are rare here in Pennsylvania, nationwide they’re on the rise.  New York City alone saw a 30% jump last year.  We saw another jump after the election. 

 

          I have to believe the victims of these crimes, who are often minorities and first-generation immigrants, are also having a tough time seeing Christ’s love reflected from this Shining City on a Hill.

 

          The big question is this:  What are you and I called to do about this? 

 

          In Jesus’ eyes, we, too, are the Salt of the Earth.  Like the disciples, we’ve been ordained – set apart for specific work of the Kingdom, work that Jesus sets before us. 

 

          And fresh in our minds is the warning Isaiah gave the returned exiles.  No matter how correct and complete our worship and devotional practices may be, nothing we do will please God if we are not also sharing his love with ALL his children - in concrete ways - and especially with the least among us.

 

          How’s that for a tall order?  Where do we begin?

 

          I think our work has to start by making sure we actually know these neighbors of ours, the ones who are different, the ones who struggle.

 

          And that means overcoming our fear.  You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that all of us fear those who are different.

 

          I tried to do that this past week.  I reached out to one of my colleagues, the Imam of the Al-Hikmeh Islamic Center here in Mechanicsburg.  I can only imagine what life is like for him and his flock right now.

 

          We haven’t connected yet – but I’ll keep trying.  That’s the Kingdom work that Jesus wants me to do. 

 

          How about you? 

 

          What about the folks where you work, where you live, or where you go to school?

 

          In your weekly routine, whom do you encounter who’s ‘different’, different in ways that make their lives difficult?  Maybe it’s because of their race or religion.  Maybe it’s because their sexuality lies outside the mainstream?  Maybe they have a disability that limits them.

 

          How might getting to know them better enable them to see Christ’s light shining through you?  

 

          And how might it feel to be Christ’s hands and feet?

 

          Whoever this is person is in your life, however Jesus is calling you to reach out and help them – let your light shine.  It won’t be you who is glorified.  It will be God.

 

          May it be so.

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:36 AM
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