A City on a hill cannot be hid – Jesus said it; I believe it!
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barak Obama, and more recently candidates Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz have all alluded to a “City on a Hill” in American political speeches.
On November 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan referred to the “City on a Hill” from today’s Gospel in his Election Eve Address “A Vision for America”
I have quoted John Winthrop’s words more than once on the campaign trail this year—for I believe that Americans in 1980 are every bit as committed to that vision of a shining “city on a hill,” as were those long ago settlers …
These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still… a shining city on a hill.
And in his January 11, 1989, farewell speech to the nation:
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.
I have been musing recently how the “shining city on a hill” metaphor is doing today as a vision for America.
We sing about the words of Jesus:
This little light of mine – Sunday School Song.
This little light of mine,
I’m a gonna let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
I want to be more than a Sunday-go-to-meeting Christian. (Say an “amen” to the preachers is fine,/ if all the week I let my light shine…)
The meaning in these songs emphasize: Do the right thing, do good works, and others will see and give glory to God. This is the essential function of witnessing.
And since the Greek word for “witness” is the word “martyr” this suggests that there will sometimes be a price to pay for doing the right thing. There is the cynical quip, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
The general notion is that when folks do the right thing it makes others uncomfortable, it kinda shows them up as selfish persons. And thus they get angry, and sometimes try to get even; seek retribution.
Are the words of Jesus addressed to individuals or communities, congregations and churches? In the 20th century preachers who understand Jesus as speaking primarily to individuals have been ascendant and dominant. But American political figures have pointed to the reality that groups of people seeking a common will have often looked to the words of Jesus for a sense of mission and purpose. And, dare I say it? Understanding the words of Jesus as addressed to congregations, churches, communities, and nations has been the more common understanding in the history of the church. Political figures, more than American preachers, have had their finger on the pulse of Jesus.
Surely, I am here posing a false dichotomy; Jesus call is good for both individuals and groups. Jesus is good, all the time. All the time, Jesus is good.
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John Winthrop, to whom President Reagan was alluding, was an early Puritan/Congregationalist leader in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of our guys in the UCC, who proposed that the purpose of the pilgrimage was to show the rest of the world how things could and should be done. To be that City on a Hill. And that Europe would see, and come around to doing things better. No shrinking violet Winthrop.
There is an important book, Errand to the wilderness – by Harvard historian, Perry Miller, published in 1956, that discusses these ideals of our Puritan founders.
Miller’s lifelong purpose was to answer: What was the underlying aim of the first colonists in coming to America? In what light did they see themselves? As men and women undertaking a mission that was its own cause and justification? Or did they consider themselves errand boys for a higher power?
The word “Errand” here = what we know as mission. Mission of God. This is the basis for the notion of “American exceptionalism,” that we hear much about, and God knows, such a self-understanding has lots of problems along with a sense of higher calling. Maybe Jesus’ call to the mission of God is for everyone, and not for the exceptional few, and simply our forbears dared to try.
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There is an old preacher’s story about three men, three masons, along a taut single string. When asked what they were doing the first one said, “Laying bricks”; the second said, “I’m making $100 a day;” the third said, “I’m building a cathedral.”
The graffiti found in obscure corners of Medieval cathedrals suggests that these ancient builders took pride in what they were doing; found satisfaction in doing something beyond their everyday selves, doing something for others and generations yet to come. They were clearly laying stone, and making a living; their daily bread. But they also understood themselves as doing something great, even magnificent for the Glory of God. Don’t we all want this?
And one could debate if the building of magnificent cathedrals was diverting resources from the lives of ordinary people, and displacing residents, or feeding the egos of individuals and community leaders, or pandering to the competition of one city to outdo another.
Do we dare, in America today, to see ourselves as building a cathedral? Do we dare to take the chance to try to be a “City on a Hill” as did our founders?
Do we take a chance on the words of Jesus? Will we risk answering the challenge of Jesus to Do the right thing, do good works, so others will see and give glory to God? (pause) (Jesus also implied, you can’t hide it!)
We should not in haste beatify Ronald Reagan. He ran his 1984 presidential campaign on “are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That was selfish and a far cry from the lofty vision: These visitors to that city … do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still… a shining city on a hill.
Does Jesus still call with the words of Abba:
Honey, I’m still free
Take a chance on me
Gonna do my very best
And it ain’t no lie
If you put me to the test
If you let me try
Take a chance on me
What is our vision, our American aspiration today?
Jesus is good, all the time. All the time, Jesus is good.
Amen and amen.