The People of the City on a Hill: Sermon for October 9, 2016

Note: this is the second in a three part sermon series on “Prayerful Citizenship”. To read the first sermon, please click here:

In 1630, John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and addressed the people of the ships that would become known as the Winthrop Fleet. They were Puritans, arriving ten years after the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Before they went ashore, Winthrop preached a sermon to them about what they were about to do. He told them that the new community they would form would be a like a City on a Hill, one that would be looked at by the whole world. He saidpablo that because of that they needed to be careful that the whole experiment not end in what he called a “shipwreck”.

Today we would say “train wreck”, but they didn’t have trains back then, but you get the idea. In other words, “don’t mess this up because everyone is looking at us”.

No pressure.

Nearly 400 years later Americans talk about how we are called to be a shining city on the hill, or an example of what a good society can look like. And 400 years is a long time for an idea to live. But it’s not even a quarter as long as the idea of the “City on a Hill” has been around. For that you have to go all the way back to Jesus Christ himself.

And so, as we begin this second week in our sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”, that’s where we are heading. Jesus was giving what became known as his Sermon on the Mount, and he had just finished teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you who are persecuted, and so on.

He immediately tells the people, “you are the salt of the earth”. Salt was rare and highly valued in those days, so this was high praise. Then he tells them, “you are the light of the world and a city built on a hill cannot be hidden”. Just like that old song we sing sometimes, “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, he tells them that they cannot but a basket over their light and hide it. They have to let their light shine, not so that they would be praised, but so God will be praised.

This is the passage that John Winthrop was talking about when he preached that sermon. They were about to go ashore, not so far from here, and build a city that the whole world would be watching. And so, using Jesus words, he told them “don’t hide your light”; make sure that this place we are going to build together will shine so brightly that people can’t help but see it.

All these centuries later, in an era of global 24 hour news and the internet, the country that grew from that City on a Hill cannot help but be noticed. We live in one of only a handful of countries that is consistently on the global radar, perhaps more than any other. We are watched, and analyzed, and both loved and hated. And at our best, we are a country that shines our light for good. We are a place of hope and freedom. One that still draws immigrants to our shores because of those promises.

But that doesn’t mean that our light is always shining. This country has had times when that light has been obscured by the baskets that we ourselves have put over it. Baskets like hatred, inequality, violence, systemic poverty, and more. In our worst moments, we are a shining example of what not to do. That’s what we talked about last week, when we admitted that sometimes not all is well where we live. We have to tell the truth about that before anything can change.

The good news, though, is that by telling that truth, we have a chance to kick over the baskets that hide the light, to change the story, and to make this City on the Hill shine as it never has before.

But that starts with us. Because that City on the Hill must be filled with People on the Hill. And the city will only be as good as the people who build it. And so, like Jesus said, we need to become like the salt of the earth. And for those of us who are Christians, that means we need to draw upon our best values, the ones given to us by our faith, and use those things to inform the way we will be citizens in our country.

John Winthrop himself had an idea of where to look for those values. In his sermon that day he quoted an Old Testament prophet, Micah, whose words we read before the sermon. Speaking to a city in distress, one that had lost its way and was trying to get back on track, Micah asked rhetorically, “What does God require of you?” And the answer wasn’t burnt offerings or sacrifices or anything like that. Instead if was just these three things: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

csp_zhgwiaepitiDo justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. It almost sounds too simple. But it is harder than it looks.

Because what would it look like if we all demanded those three things of ourselves in our daily lives? How would we do justice? Would we seek to be more fair to the people we deal with in our businesses? Would we look at people who weren’t treated as equals and advocate for them? Would we speak up when we hear someone use words that demean others?

And what about kindness? This same word is sometimes also translated as “mercy”, so would we be kind and merciful? Would we hold the door open? Would we let that person merge in traffic? Or, more seriously, would we stop withholding words that would heal? Would we look at those who suffer, and choose mercy over words of blame?

And what about humility? By this I mean real humility, which is understanding that none of us is any more or less beloved by God’s than others. If we walked through the world with that kind of humility, how would it change us? Would we be less judgmental of differences? Would we be more apt to value character over celebrity? Would we be more aware about what was good for all, and not just good for us?

Micah gave us a prescription for what ails us. He told us clearly how to get better. But as much as those three things sound as simple as an episode of Mr. Rogers, that is hard medicine. Justice, kindness, and humility are wonderful things…and they all take work. Every day we have to recommit to them. And every day we have to use them to kick aside the baskets that cover our light.

But more than that, if we want to be a City on the Hill, it is not enough that we ourselves commit to these things. We must also demand them from our leaders. “Christian values” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in election years. It often comes to mean a very specific set of beliefs and priorities, one with which only some Christians agree. But what would our national political stage look like if we took this bedrock of our faith, these real Christian values, and demanded them of our leaders? What would happen if we refused anything less than real justice, real kindness, and real humility?

That may sound naive, especially in a year like this, but if enough of us demanded it, things would start to change. And so would our leaders.

I’ll close with this. I’ve talked a lot about John Winthrop in this sermon. He would go on to be the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a very powerful man. He would also become one who didn’t always live up to Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility. Because of that, real people’s lives were affected for the worse.


Rev. John Wheelwright, who was not beloved by John Winthrop

One of those people was a Rev. John Wheelwright. You may have heard of him, because in 1638 he founded our church and the town of Exeter. He had crossed Governor Winthrop, and he was banished from Massachusetts into what was then the frontier of New Hampshire. (His sister in law, Ann Hutchinson, was banished to what would become Rhode Island, by the way.) We’re here today, in a real way, because John Winthrop got it wrong.

A lot of our leaders get it wrong sometimes. And in the face of that, it is easy to feel powerless. I’m sure that John Wheelwright did. But we are not powerless. We have the ability to continue to build up our City on the Hill, and to transform it for good. We have the ability to become the servant leaders who make sure that light shines, even when others would obscure it. To be a Christian and a citizen is to never be without hope, and to never be without responsibility.

When I think of the man who founded this church, and this town, I remember that. 378 years later, I hope when people look at us as a church and as a town they see light. And I hope that we, as Christians and as citizens, will only do the things that would help that light to shine, here in our city, and far beyond. Amen?

Jesus, America, and the Bullies on the Bus – A sermon for July 1, 2012

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”


Like many of you I’ve been following the story of the New York state bus monitor who was bullied recently. Karen Klein was riding on a bus when a group of 7th graders, 12 and 13 years old, taunted her, grabbed at her, and made fun of the fact she’s a widow and had lost a child. Another student then posted it on youtube. Apparently this had happened before. As anyone who watched the video can tell you, these seventh grade kids are already breathtakingly cruel.

And today we read this story from the Gospel, about Jesus and a woman who was looking for healing. Jesus has been called to go to a house where a young girl is dying. He’s hurrying along and seemingly oblivious to this woman who approaches him. She has been suffering for a long time. Twelve years. And she has seen all the doctors and spent all her money trying to get well. But she’s heard about Jesus, and she says, “If I can just touch his clothes, maybe I’ll be healed…”

She does, and she is immediately made well. And Jesus knows something has happened and turns around and says, “Who touched me?” She admits, timidly, it was her. Jesus tells her, “your faith has made you well…go in peace and be healed.”

What do these two stories have to do with each other? And why am I putting the two together on the Sunday that we celebrate the 4th of July, and ask God’s blessing upon our country?

It’s because of this. As much as we might want to write those school bus bullies off as “kids today” or as much as we might want to talk about what the parents could have done differently, the fact is those kids on the bus were not born in a vacuum, nor were they raised in one. They didn’t wake up one morning after years of exposure to a society of civility and compassion and decide to bully the widow who road their bus. The same is true of the kids who are bullied around this country every day, for whatever reason. It’s not an issue of “kids will be kids”. They don’t come up with this on their own.

Instead, they get it from somewhere. And more often than not, they get it from us. Not us here specifically, but us as in the adults in their life. Not just the ones in their homes, but the ones in their neighborhoods and on their televisions and even in the places of power in this country.

Pundits bemoan the lack of civility in this country. They say we have lost basic manners and human compassion. And to a great extent, they’re right. We reward radio personalities who degrade women, we engage in name-calling when someone has a different political belief than ours, we curse out the umpire when he calls our kid out at home plate. Is it any surprise those kids on the bus may have thought what they were doing was acceptable?

In fact, in the aftermath of the video, some of the boys involved began to receive death threats from adults. And while nothing those boys did on the bus that day was okay, adults threatening 13 year olds with death isn’t either. The ones who made the threats are probably oblivious to the fact that they were replicating the very kind of un-compassionate behavior those kids were engaging in.

Now, it would be wonderful to be able to say that we who follow the way of Christ, who taught us compassion and who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, aren’t like that. But the truth is Christians are sometimes the worst offenders. The things that are said in the public arena by Christians of all stripes, sometimes even as they defend their views as being truly Christian, are sometimes staggeringly lacking in compassion, kindness, and respect. It’s little wonder that many under the age of forty in our country think that Christians is a religion where believers claim to believe one thing but act in a totally different way. For many Americans in my generation the hypocritical Christian is what they think of when they argue religion is useless.

So how do we change that? How do we change not so much so that we will be perceived differently, but so that our society will be different? How do we become a people who embodies Christ’s teaching in such a way that our culture changes?

I think about the woman on the road that day. Broken down. Losing her lifeblood. Looking for healing. Being willing to try anything. I think of her seeking out this man who was promising a different way. A way of compassion. A way of moving forward. And I think of her, unsure, tentative, reaching out and just touching his clothing. Reaching out to the one that she thought would heal her.

I think she has something to teach those of us who would follow Christ. In a time where the culture we live, the body made up of all of us in this country, sometimes feels like it is bleeding out, and losing its life, how do we reach out for that which would heal us? How do we reach out for the cloak of Jesus and dare to ask for healing?

We Americans often sing God bless America. It’s a prayer we are singing. But when we finish singing, do we think about our part in that? Or do we ask for that blessing from God without considering the things that God wants us to do? Do we finish singing and forget about it? Or do we finish singing and get to work on working with that blessing? Do we get to work trying to follow the path of love, and compassion, and kindness set out by Christ?

Now, I want to be clear here for a minute that I am not saying this should become a country of Christians. We live in a religiously diverse country and every citizen of every faith should be valued and respected. And every faith, in its best interpretation, encourages its members to lead lives of compassion and care for ones neighbor. But what I’m saying is that for those of us who are Christian, our faith adds an extra layer to our citizenship. It adds a mandate that we help to transform our culture from one where 13 year old kids think bullying an elderly woman is acceptable to one where they have grown up with the privileging of compassion and kindness and civility. One where the whole idea of loving your neighbor as yourself is not something that we just give lip service to on Sundays.

I believe that’s possible. I believe it’s possible to create a country where we may disagree widely on the issues, but we still act like Christians. I’ll give you an example. I know this congregation pretty well, and I know that last Thursday when the Supreme Court decision on health care came down, many of you had strong reactions. A segment of this congregation thought it was the worst thing to ever happen to this country. But I know another group of you thought it was the best thing ever.

And yet here you are, on Sunday morning. Sitting across the aisle from one another. Maybe even sharing the same pew. You’re not calling each other names. You’re not saying the other is unAmerican. You’re not yelling at each other with red faces. You may disagree, but you pray for each other’s families and bring casseroles over when one gets sick. And after the final hymn you’ll go into the back room and drink coffee and actually fellowship.

I’m not naive. I know that this country will never resemble a church fellowship hour. But I do know that if we who would follow Christ were to reach out to him, reach out and just try to touch him, try to be healed, we could help to spread that healing to the places we live and work and learn. If we did that, things might look a whole lot better than they did when we saw that video taken on the bus for the same time. They might look a whole lot more like the country we want to be, the country that we hope God will bless.

It’s not always an easy path, though. Deciding how you will live into your Christian calling as a citizen is different for each person, and deciding how you will ask for God’s blessing, and healing, for us all is a personal decision.

A seminarian I know, a good friend of Heidi’s, had to ask herself that question recently. She felt called by God to a different type of ministry, one in which she could share Christ’s compassion and love with those who needed it most. And so this summer, while her classmates have been safely ensconced in air conditioned offices, she’s been waking up at 4am and running, drilling, and otherwise getting through another day of training to be an Air Force chaplain.

She’s not someone who relishes the idea of war. Her political ideas are different from many she serves with. But she is someone who feels called by God to serve in that way, and to spread Christ’s love and light to those who don’t get to see a whole lot of it. She has decided that is the way to embody her faith in her citizenship.

That’s the path she took. But you don’t have to join the military to do that. You can do it right here at home in your own neighborhoods. In this election year, where the commercials bombard us every night on our TV screens, where the debates grow louder each round, where even jokes about candidates being killed are not considered out of bounds, how will you choose to let your faith inform your citizenship? How will you reach out for Christ asking that his healing be on us all? How will you ask God to bless America, and bless the whole world?

Will you let yourself be transformed by the meanest kids on the bus? Or will you become the one who steps in, and reaches out for Christ’s healing? The one who hears Christ say, “your faith has healed you…go in peace”?

May God bless us all that we would not be the one who sits ideally by when our country, and our world, need us the most. Amen.