Between April 8 and June 12, 1630, Puritan emigrants from England travelled aboard a ship named Arbella, carrying with them the Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While onboard, Governor John Winthrop wrote (and we presume delivered) a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity” where he set out his vision of the community that they would create together.
We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the 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. 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.
The image that Winthrop painted for his community became the ideal that the colonists placed on their capital city of Boston. And it’s an ideal and an image that has been revisited over the years by Presidents Kennedy, Regan, and Obama; applied to the nation as a whole, the United States of America that grew from the seeds planed in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies.
As this phrase became popular in American politics it was used to remind folks that the world is watching. “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
At our best, we’ve lived up to that scrutiny; creating a union of states that vow to work together, striving for a government that allows its people to pursue life, liberty, and happiness; inviting others to join us in this endeavor – placing a welcoming statue of liberty at a port of entry, lifting her golden lamp, shining our light, beside a golden door of welcome.
Ronald Regan spoke of being a “City on a hill” on the eve of his election and in his farewell speech when he said:
I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, 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.
In a 2006 commencement address to the graduates at UMass Boston, then-Senator Barack Obama said:
It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.
More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill—that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places.
Of course, the image – the myth – of America shines a light on our best qualities but hides the bad parts in shadows. We’ve conquered the land, displacing the original inhabitants. What we’ve created has been largely built on the backs of forced labor done by humans that were stolen from their own lands. The glorious welcome of the Statue of Liberty has not been as polished and as bright as we would hope.
Both Regan and Obama lifted up the “city on a hill” as a place to which others would be drawn. “if there had to be city walls,” said Regan, “the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Obama spoke of student from 100 different countries finding success here.
We talk of others looking up to our city on a hill. Our position on top of the hill means that all eyes are upon us, that we are being scrutinized.
Governor Winthrop mentioned God in his speech but the politicians that followed … not so much.
The “God” parts of the speech are often glossed over or forgotten – rightly so for politicians representing a diverse nation that, at least nominally, upholds the individuals freedom of religion.
But since we’re in church on Sunday morning, I thought we might want to keep the God and Jesus parts in.
Jesus says “let your light shine.” He points out the absurdity of building a city on a hill – a city like Jerusalem – and then trying to hide it. Yes, a city on a hill will be noticed by others. Yes, a city on a hill will invite scrutiny. Yes, a city on a hill will call attention to itself and attract others.
Being a city on a hill does not mean living in isolation. Why would we shine our light for all to see, only to deny that light to those who are drawn in?
Jesus calls his followers to be a shining example of God’s love – a love that is reflected throughout our holy scriptures; a love that shines on the outcast and oppressed; a love that cares for widows and orphans and welcomes the strangers.
Being a city on a hill doesn’t mean living in isolation. Being a city on a hill doesn’t mean looking down on others. Being a city on a hill shining God’s light out into the world certainly does not mean building walls to keep other out; arresting those who come to us seeking safety and security; or tearing children from the arms of their parents. And no, imprisoning families together doesn’t make it any better.
Each of us has our own light to shine. We cannot hide it. And when we join our lights together, God’s love will be radiant – erasing the shadows and uncovering injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,; crimes against God and humanity that are committed in our names.
We each have our own light to shine. We gather together as a church community to renew and re-energize and then we are called to go out into the world to share that light, working tirelessly for justice, freedom, and peace among all people, reaching out our hands to comfort those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, and to transform their pain into joy.
We gather as a church to be renewed and re-energized but as we head out on our own separate ways, we are no less a church. Even scattered apart, when we are not physically in this building together, we are church. Whether we are heading away on summer vacations or beginning a new ministry with another congregation, we will still be church together.
God’s love is not meant to be hoarded and walled in. God’s love is not meant to be displayed as if a city on a hill but then denied to other who would seek it. God’s love is not meant to only exist inside these four walls.
God’s love is meant to be taken from this place and shared. Lived out in word and in deed.
We will head our separate ways, sharing God’s light and love. And we’ll come back together again – as we find our way back from vacations, as the summer routine is once again replaced by the fall routine, once Cathy is able to get the music ministry at South Church up to MCC standards, our musicians and singers may join with theirs for concerts or worship or other ways to shine our lights together.
Being a city on a hill doesn’t mean living in isolation. Being a city on a hill doesn’t mean looking down on others or keeping people out.
Being a city on a hill means letting our light shine for others to see. Being a city on a hill means sharing the love of God with everyone we meet.
Being a city on a hill means letting our light shine, everywhere we go, whether we are together or apart, letting our light shine as a beacon of God’s love.
As we head in different directions – whether for vacations or a new church – may God bless us on our journey. May we recognize Christ is all that we do. May the Holy Spirit give us the strength and power to let our light shine brightly. Amen.