Light of the World


Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time …. Gospel of Matthew 5:13-20 ….

If you were fortunate to have a good teacher in social studies or American history, then today’s gospel reading may remind you of a text that some consider the first great speech in American history. It’s entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” written by John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was actually a sermon, written on board the Arbella, on the way to his new home in America.

In its most famous passage, Winthrop makes a connection between Jesus’ teaching and the vocation of the new community he will lead.

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. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.[1]

Like Jesus, John Winthrop’s experience of the world was one in which there was a stark contrast between what sacred texts called God’s people to do, and the reality of cultural religion in his time. He staked his fortune and his life on the principle that God’s people are supposed to be different. Like Jesus, he challenged his hearers to shine light in a morally dark world.

Winthrop’s journey reminds me of another. This journey ended on the 25th of September, 1951, when a converted troop transport ship sailed into the upper bay of New York harbor, carrying what were called “displaced persons” from Europe. There was a young man aboard, who I have imagined peering through plumes of mist, scanning the horizon for his first glimpse of a colossal statue. He had seen the hell of war from the perspective of a child, and experienced the pain and loss of a brother and family home. He was classified as a refugee, and was arriving as a legal immigrant, supported by the policies of the U.S. government, and sponsored by a Christian congregation.

The end of my dad’s ocean journey was one in which he saw the Statue of Liberty with her torch shining at the gateway to a life of freedom and opportunity different than any he had known. Twice I earned a degree at Princeton Seminary, and, after each commencement, we traveled with him into NYC to visit the place that he had first seen at the edge of adulthood. Lady Liberty was a symbol to him and millions of others who have seen it before and since that America has something to do with being “the light of the world.”

If we examine more closely today’s gospel reading, a text that has inspired this theme in our national story, then we discover that the context is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus makes pronouncements we call the Beatitudes. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus says, “for they will be filled.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew has shaped the narrative to portray Jesus as the new Moses.[2] Jesus doesn’t do away with the Ten Commandments, but rather reinterprets the tradition he has received so that his disciples will know how to live in the gracious and generous way that is characteristic of the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus is finished uttering all the beatitudes, he goes on to explain the difference it will make for his disciples to embrace them: those who hear and practice his word will be salt in a world that often is tasteless, and light in a world that often is dark.

Jesus’ words, as beautiful and true as they are, also have a critical edge. The Jesus who says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” goes on to say, “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The Jesus who says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” lets barely a minute pass before also saying, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” A sermon based on this text has the potential to be upsetting.

In our current political climate, I imagine that just talking about refugees and immigration may feel upsetting. On the one hand, I hear people say that there’s nothing new about an administration limiting immigration to keep America safe. On the other hand, I hear people say that there’s something different and troubling about the way it’s being done.

Kansas City pastor Adam Hamilton, in an interview broadcast Friday on NPR, described the situation of many congregations, when he talked about a church with members who support the new administration’s policies, and members who oppose them. Some say, “‘Please don’t talk politics every Sunday. Don’t bring your personal opinions into the sermon every week.’ And other folks … ‘Why aren’t you speaking out? Why aren’t you saying something?’ …. It’s easy to irritate people. It’s harder to influence people.”[3] Public discourse has become so bitter and course that it’s difficult to make progress toward common understanding and purpose.

Go back with me in time to an age before Twitter, and consider Ronald Reagan, the “Great Communicator,” who certainly understood the power of gracious words. In his farewell address, he recalled John Winthrop’s sermon, and tried to express what a “shining city upon a hill” had meant to him in his conduct of the presidency.[4] He told a story about the aircraft carrier Midway on patrol in the South China Sea, and a leaky little boat crammed full of refugees from Indochina, risking their lives at sea for a chance to get to America. The Midway sent a small launch to bring them through choppy seas to the ship. As they approached the carrier, a young man stood up, and called out, “Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.”[5] It’s not difficult for me to see in that young man a reflection of the young man who was my father, to hear and to feel the hope of all our mothers and fathers and ancestors, immigrants one and all. It’s not difficult to feel Reagan’s sympathy for fathers and mothers who search for freedom and a safe and secure future for their families.

Whatever his faults, Reagan took seriously Winthrop’s admonishment, which seems just as valid today: … 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. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God. As policy is shaped, may American be made secure, of course, and may Americans live in such a way that the nations of the world see us as stewards of freedom, rather than agents of doom. May Christians speak and act graciously enough to reflect the light of the Lord we claim to follow. We don’t need to be perfect, just different enough that people catch a dim reflection of his grace in our faces. When the world is dark, be light.


            [1] John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity,” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979, p. 24 ff..

            [2] Thomas G. Long, “Matthew,” The Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997, pp. 45-52.

            [3] NPR Staff, “Kansas City Clergyman Seeks Way To Pastor Across The Political Divide,” as heard on “All Things Considered,” 3 February 2017, accessed 4 February 2017.

            [4] Between Winthrop and Reagan, historians can draw a line intersecting other significant leaders and speeches with a similar theme. They form a biblical strand in a larger thread that has been spun of America’s “habits of the heart.” Robert Bellah, et. al., “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life,” 1985, p. 28 ff.

            [5] Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” January 11, 1989,, accessed 4 February 2017.



~ by JohnH1962 on February 5, 2017.