Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

Illustration by Rachel Ternes

Isaiah 58:1–12 • Shout loudly; don’t hold back; raise your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their crime, to the house of Jacob their sins. They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways like a nation that acted righteously, that didn’t abandon their God. They ask me for righteous judgments, wanting to be close to God. “Why do we fast and you don’t see; why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want, and oppress all your workers. You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast; you hit each other violently with your fists. You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today if you want to make your voice heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I choose, a day of self-affliction, of bending one’s head like a reed and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the LORD’s glory will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, “I’m here.” If you remove the yoke from among you, the finger-pointing, the wicked speech; if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, your light will shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noon. The LORD will guide you continually and provide for you, even in parched places. He will rescue your bones. You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry. They will rebuild ancient ruins on your account; the foundations of generations past you will restore. You will be called Mender of Broken Walls, Restorer of Livable Streets.

Matthew 5:13–20 • “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
“Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality. Therefore, whoever ignores one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called the lowest in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever keeps these commands and teaches people to keep them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”


In the year 1630, the Arabella was on a cross-Atlantic voyage from Great Britain to North America, carrying “a great company of Religious people, of which Christian tribes [John Winthrop] was the Brave Leader and famous Governor.”[1]

While the ship was en route to the Massachusetts Bay colony, Winthrop delivered a sermon to the assembled passengers that established a now famous metaphor:

Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when hee shall make us a prayse and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it likely that of New England.” For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

The New England colony would be a “city upon a hill”—a shining beacon to the world. An example of all that was good and true. It would not be long before this idea gave birth to a whole strain of thought that would continue throughout out history.

In the days prior to the Revolution, Philip Freneau would write in The Rising Glory of America (1771): “No traces shall remain of tyranny.  And laws, a pattern to the world beside, be here enacted first…A new Jerusalem, sent down from heaven, shall grace our happy earth—perhaps this land…A Canaan here, another Canaan shall excel the old.”

In the following century, the French writer Alexis De Tocqueville wrote of his experience in America and said that it was an “exceptional” country. Only a few years later, Samuel Ringgold Ward, a former slave and fugitive, evidenced remarkable optimism about the creation of a new political party called the Liberty Party.  He wrote: “That this [Liberty] Party will be popular, we do not claim. That corrupt men—men, who are more for numbers than principles—for ballot-box victories than for truth—will approve of it, we do not expect…That God will be on its side is our firm belief:–and, humbly and fervently, do we pray, that He will condescend to make it a means of hastening the time, when oppression and war shall be unknown,…when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

In the Twentieth Century, members of the American Communist Party would try to argue that America was independent of the Marxist laws of history because of its special circumstances.  They termed this idea “American Exceptionalism.”

So, an idea that began with a Puritan sermon aboard ship evolved into an idea of the special nature of the United States of America.  An idea seized upon by presidents Democratic and Republican.  In 1961, John F. Kennedy is said to have reintroduced the phrase “a city upon a hill” into the national consciousness again.  Two decades later it was picked up by Ronald Reagan who used it in his 1984 nomination acceptance speech and in 1989 in his farewell speech to the nation.

The idea of America as an exceptional nation, as a city upon a hill, as a nation with a special destiny to spread human freedom and democracy to the world are long developed and long held ideas at the heart of our civil religion.

There is a question, however, about what any of this has to do with Christianity.


Of course one of the great tensions with this idea and with Christianity is that in Christianity, God does not have favorite nations.  We read as much in the Book of Acts, from a speech of Peter as he realizes that God’s plan of salvation is for Jew and Gentile alike:

“Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34–35 CEB)

One of the things the prophets were insistent on that only became even more pronounced in Christianity was that God’s story is larger than the story of any one nation.  In fact, God’s purposes seem undeterred by the rise and fall of nations.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed and its people scattered, but God’s purposes continued.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed and its people taken into Exile, but God’s purposes continued on.  The returnees would eventually throw off the yoke of the Greeks and establish an independent Kingdom of Israel again, but it, too, would be subsumed into the expanding Roman Empire, but God’s purposes continued on.  The Jews would be driven out of Palestine by the Romans after their failed anti-Roman revolt, but the purposes of God would continue.  The Roman Empire itself would eventually become Christian and the faith would be spread throughout Europe and North Africa.  The Western Empire would collapse, but God’s purposes continued on.  The Byzantine Empire would eventually succumb to the Turks, but God’s purposes would continue.  The Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, the German Empire, the Russian Empire, the Napoleonic Empire—all of whom saw themselves as God’s chosen nation—would rise and fall, but God’s purposes continued.  And even after our empire falls, God’s purposes will continue.

The story of God’s city upon a hill is not the story of any nation, or nation-state, or empire.  It is the story of something so much more.


Of course, all the imagery of the city upon a hill comes from an event given upon another hill, when Jesus delivered to his disciples his most famous set of teachings, the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount is the longest of the five discourses in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus’ teachings are presented.  It begins with the famous Beatitudes:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
“Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” (Matthew 5:3–12 CEB)

But then it continues:

You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says, “but if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing…” Now, with the exception of salt obtained from crude sources like salt marshes or rock salt,[2] salt cannot lose its saltiness. But salt can lose its saltiness, in a sense, if it becomes too mixed with other things and diluted, watered down. Religion that becomes about simple piety or worship, or what color the carpeting should be in the sanctuary, or arcane matters of doctrine, has lost its flavor.  It’s lost its power. Salt loses its saltiness by becoming no longer salt.  Which is somewhat absurd.

In the same way, lighting a lamp and putting it under a bushel is likewise an absurdity.  It defeats the whole purpose of lighting a lamp.

The metaphor of the city upon a hill is meant to illustrate the absurdity of hiding the blessings that the people of God have been given.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden. To try to do so is absurd.

And yet, that is the very point that Jesus is making: we have been blessed by God, we have been given the good news. Hiding that, refusing to share that with the world, is as absurd as trying to hide a city on a hill.


What is so interesting in all of this is that the metaphor was never meant to be a descriptor as it was meant to be a call to action.  Just before John Winthrop used the metaphor he noted that there were perils to being given a special commission by God.  That having been specially charged, one was also specially responsible.  Winthrop claimed that there was a peril as great as a shipwreck if the people neglected their duty:

Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke, and to provide for our posterity, is to followe the counsell of Micah, to doe justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, wee must be knitt together, in this worke, as one man. Wee must entertaine each other in brotherly affection. Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.

Winthrop is not being arrogant and describing the New England plantation as the New Jerusalem. He is describing the same command that Jesus gave his disciples, to be the city on a hill that cannot be hid.  To be the testimony to the nations. The salt of the earth, the light of the world. That is not a privilege, that is a lot of work.

That’s the work that the church is supposed to be about.

Perhaps one of the reasons that so many states have claimed for themselves this city on a hill idea is that the people for whom the metaphor is intended have not been using it.  If the Church is not going to be the agent of justice and freedom in the world, we shouldn’t be surprised when the state steps into that void.

Part of that is our fault: after the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the Church ceded to the Empire the day to day running of the world and focused more on the “spiritual” matters of the afterlife and eternal salvation. The rise of the nation-state encouraged the Church to focus on “spiritual” matters in order to keep the temporal matters for themselves.

But to be honest, the Church hasn’t been the leader in these things.  We have been the city upon the hill the entire time, and we’ve been trying to hide.  Regardless of what you think politically about whether the government should or should not be in the business of a social safety net, it would be hard to argue that the Church had made such a social safety net unnecessary.

Now, some have pointed out that if the responsibility were put back on every church for things that the government does, like food stamps, etc., that each church in America would have to come up with another $50,000 of its own money to make up the difference. Quite frankly there are more taxpayers than there are parishioners.

But I can’t help but wonder whether those numbers would be closer if the Church spent more of its resources in trying to address systemic injustice and improve the lot of the poor than they do putting competent clergy on trial for celebrating their children’s same sex marriages. And it’s not just us.  I once asked a British colleague what people thought of the British Methodist church, given that the Methodists started in England.  He said, “Oh, we’re known as the people who are against things.”  I knew what he meant, and knew the intention behind the things that the British Methodists were likely against, but it makes me wonder how we Christians in America are seen.  Probably the same way: against gay people, against non-Christians, against single mothers and people who’ve had abortions.  Against science. Against, against, against. That does not sound like people who were given a light to share. And if we were, it sounds like we’ve put it under a bushel.

It seems to me that if we as the church actually shared the light of God’s love and grace, of mercy, of justice, of compassion and care for the poor, of welcome to the marginalized, of hope for the oppressed, who help others to hear the voice of those who are ignored… if we did all of those things, perhaps our numbers would be greater.

It’s the kind of thing that Isaiah is talking about in the passage we read earlier. The fasting that God is asking of us is not empty religious ritual or piety on display, but untying the ropes of yokes of slavery, sharing bread with the hungry, giving homes to the homeless, clothing the naked.  Isaiah tells us that when we do this our “light will break out like the dawn.”

V.   END

Maybe we as the church have too easily bought into one nation-state or another claiming to be God’s chosen.  The English church that John Wesley labored so hard to reform from being a “dead” faith was a church at the heart of a British Empire that would sing a hymn called “Jerusalem” that imagined that the boy Jesus had visited ancient England and thus created a little heaven on earth while he was there.  The poem on which it was based was likely looking at the problems of industrialization, but the hymn fit nicely into preexisting English ideas about their own chosenness.  It made it easier for the church to hand over responsibility to the secular world. And more than authority: power.

Wesley never worried that the Methodists would cease to exist.  He worried that we would become a dead sect with only the “form of religion” without any of the “power.”

Jesus is telling us to claim our power as salt of the earth and light of the world.  Not to hide our light under a basket, nor to seek to hide a city on a hill.  Perhaps the greatest problem with our believing America to be the city on the hill is that we forget that we as the church are supposed to be that city and we abrogate our responsibility to be that witness in the world.

The more we fight over doctrine, the more we engage in petty disputation, the more we argue about arcane interpretations of church law, the more we demonstrate that we are not as relevant to people’s every day lives as the secular world is.  The more we hand over authority to the secular powers of the world.  And the more we leave ourselves with very little light that we can shine into the world.

If we were actually to claim this light, and to let it shine into the world, it would shine brighter than anything the world has ever seen.  There is no nation, no kingdom, no empire that could possibly compete.  The light of Rome, of Britannia, of America combined could not outshine it.

We are meant to be that salt of the earth, that light of the world, the city on a hill that cannot be hid. So, let your light shine before all people, so that the good that we do will reflect the light of the God who sent us.


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