Sermon: The City on a Hill

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” Matthew 5:14

The Gospel passage that we heard this morning is part of a much larger parable of Jesus called the Salt of the Earth.  Jesus calls the Apostles the Salt of the Earth and says that if the salt loses its flavor it cannot season.

Salt has a lot of biblical significance.  If you eat salt with someone it means that you are bound together in loyalty.  When the bishop arrives at the door of the church, he is met by a child carrying a tray with bread and salt.  Bread is the bread of life and the salt binds the bishop to the community and the community to the bishop.

Jesus used the image of salt, one that his hearers would have been familiar with, to illustrate the role of not only the Apostles but the Church and how that role would influence society.  Because of the preservation power of salt, it is necessary for life.  The Apostles, and now us, have the responsibility to preserve the life of the Church, as handed down to us from the Apostles, so that it will be available to future generations.  We are not to keep it for ourselves alone, but for all generations. We take the choice cuts, and preserve it in our hearts and minds, and pass it along.  We are the salt that preserves the church and her teaching.

In 1630, John Winthrop was aboard the ship Arbella anchored in the harbor overlooking the new world.  He had come to the new world to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was sitting in, what we would now call Boston Harbor, overlooking the land that would become the colony.  He had a hard task ahead of him and he knew it.  He knew of the struggles that the colony of Plymouth had gone through but he was willing to sacrifice it all, including his life, to try and tame the new world.

John Winthrop was a Puritan.  Puritans were exiles if you will, from the clergy after the purges of Elizabeth the 1st of England.  The wanted to reform the established church, the Church of England, from the inside but were blocked from doing so and therefore persecuted not only by the Church but by the government of the day.  They were opposed to all forms of clericalism, the power of the clergy, and wanted to return to a purer form of the faith.  They were the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Plymouth Colony.  They came to the New World to escape the persecution they were encountering at home.  They were seeking a place where they could practice their faith outside of the dictate of the government, this had never been accomplished before, but they were going to try it.

As Winthrop sat on board the ship he wrote a sermon that was called, A Model of Christian Charity.  Winthrop believed that the world would watch what they were doing keeping in mind this had never been done before.  The world would be watching each and every step they made and holding it up against the ideals of the New World and how they wished to govern themselves.  This was a tall order.

The city would be built on a hill, and a city that is built on a hill cannot be hidden from view.  Standing on the hill one can see for miles and one can see you for miles.  Building a city on a hill was done for safety and for other reasons.

Winthrop used the passage of Scripture that we heard this very morning in drafting his sermon;

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

For Winthrop he took these words and used them to describe the City that he was about to build.  I wonder if he knew that some 100 years later the Revolution that would change the world forever would start in the very city that he was about to build.  His city was to be an example to the world on Christian charity and love towards all.  I think history will show that they fell short of that mark.

But what of us, what does this passage mean for us as we sit here today?  Is God calling us to set out and found a new world that we can build a city on top of a hill?  Are we required to leave all that we have and hold dear and found a new utopian society?  I don’t think so.

Remember the Kingdom of God is not an earthly kingdom it abides within each one of us, we are in essence representatives of the Kingdom of God and the light needs to shine from each of us.

We believe that God is the True and Uncreated light.  We see in the Hebrew Scriptures that light is often symbolic of God, His divine law, and Israel itself in contrast with other nations.  In the Gospels and letters of the Apostles, Jesus, the Son of God, is called the light, and we are to become sons and daughters of the light.  We are to turn from the darkness of sin and face the light.  During the Baptism service in the Orthodox Church, the child and parents turn and face the West and renounce Satan and all of his evil was, then they turn towards the East, the direction where the Sun rises from, and make promises to follow that light in season and out of season.

We not only preserve the faith with the salt of our lives but we radiate that faith like the rays of the Sun, we then become the city on the hill the shining example for all the world to see, the city that cannot be hidden and so our works and seen by all but most especially our Father who is in Heaven.

This is not an easy take.  The city on the hill is also the city that is attacked the most.  It is easily defended, if the wall, the wall of Scripture and truth is built around it, and the guardians of the city are watchful, but if there is a weakness in the defenses of the city it can be easily breached.  This requires diligence on our part to ensure that our defenses are strong for the day of trial that will come for all of us in our own way.  We need the strength of Holy Scripture, Tradition, the teaching of the Church, and the Sacramental life of the Church.  The Church exists as the place where we come for that much need shoring up of our defenses to keep the enemy at bay.

We are that city on the hill, we are the new Israel and the new Jerusalem, we are the preserves of the faith and must preserve it will all the vigor that we can muster, if we lose our saltiness then we are not able to flavor the world that sop desperately needs us.

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