You are the light of the world

Preached on Sunday, 05.02.2017

By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.

No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket,

but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.

In the same way, let your light shine before others,

so that they may see your good works

and give glory to your Father in heaven.

The idea of the city set on a hill comes round every now and then in politics.  It has been a recurring theme in Australian politics, particularly with the Australian Labour Party.  But it is in American politics that the image has perhaps found its most persistent echo.  Here’s a quotation from a former president:

 I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier. ‘We must always consider’, he said, ‘that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us’. Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities. For we are setting out upon a voyage no less hazardous than that undertaken by the Arbella in 1630. We are committing ourselves to tasks of statecraft no less awesome than that of governing the Massachusetts Bay Colony, beset as it was then by terror without and disorder within. History will not judge our endeavours — and a government cannot be selected — merely on the basis of colour or creed or even party affiliation. Neither will competence and loyalty and stature, while essential to the utmost, suffice in times such as these. For of those to whom much is given, much is required.

And this, from another president:

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. 

The first quotation is from John F Kennedy, the second from Ronald Reagan.  They were from different political persuasions, came at the life of politics from different perspectives, but had inherited the same idea of what their country was, or ought to be, about.

And the theme, or the ambition, has endured.  Here’s what Barack Obama had to say before he became president, speaking to students at the University of Massachusetts, in Boston (the city that the original colonists believed would be a shining beacon of hope):

It was right here, in the waters around us, where the American experiment began. As the earliest settlers arrived on the shores of Boston and Salem and Plymouth, they dreamed of building a City upon a Hill. And the world watched, waiting to see if this improbable idea called America would succeed.  More than half of you represent the very first member of your family to ever attend college. In the most diverse university in all of New England, I look out at a sea of faces that are African-American and Hispanic-American and Asian-American and Arab-American. I see students that have come here from over 100 different countries, believing like those first settlers that they too could find a home in this City on a Hill — that they too could find success in this unlikeliest of places.

And so the dream has continued to inspire; it has continued to provide an ambition to be something and somewhere worth looking at, somewhere worth learning from.  In a sense, it is important not to be put off the dream by much of the reality, the ways in which the dream’s destination has passed by many of those who sought to make the journey; for as long as the dream, the vision, the idea, was held dear, even sacred, its power had the potential to enlighten and to inform and to correct.  And, it has seemed to me that, whatever the divisions, the shortcomings, the shifting sands, of political and social reality, the people of the United States have looked to the occupant of the White House to lift all their eyes to a vision that was all-embracing, that was hopeful, that was generous, that presumed that the city set on a hill was a destiny worth pursuing.  And it also seems to me that much of the current dismay in that country, much of the talk I hear of ‘resistance’, is from those who feel that that vision is being abandoned, even denigrated; it’s about the disappearance of the light from the city.

The link was made explicit last year by Mitt Romney, speaking of the man who would soon come to occupy the White House:

His domestic policies will lead to recession; his foreign policies will make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president, and his personal qualities will mean that America will cease to be a shining city on a hill.

And Mitt Romney, in that last phrase, may have indicated why so many of his fellow country people abandoned the vision: it’s because he suggests that the shining city on a hill was, for America, not an ambition (which it should be) but an accomplishment, a destination already reached (which it clearly is not).  And many of those for whom there was no sense of accomplishment, many of those who had been left behind on the journey, decided that, if this was it, if this was the city, if this was the end of the journey, then this city was, after all, not for the likes of them, and not worth keeping as a guide.

‘Let your light shine,’ Jesus tells his disciples.  Let your light shine as a beacon, let it shine as an illumination, shine as an example, shine as an inspiration, and shine as a call to worship.  But the light, it is important to notice, is not about who Jesus’ followers are; the light is about what Jesus’ followers do: ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’.

There have been times, there are times, when Christians (and indeed others) have reduced this light to a kind of inner glow, an individualised personal holiness (or today ‘spirituality’) which manages to sail serenely through the storms of life, untouched by the carnage around them.  There have been times when, in spite of Jesus’ words, the light of Christ has been treated as if it could be contained, encased within the church, or within the being of the individual believer – something you could experience if you were just willing to enter the holy of holies, leaving the world behind.  And that is not what Jesus says, and it’s not what our faith is about.

We can’t have failed to notice in the prophecy of Isaiah a manifesto for the shining of God’s light, a description of what has to happen to let the light shine.  Let me read you some of it again:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn …

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

The light of which Jesus speaks is this light.  It’s not about some kind of inner warmth, it’s about illumination.  It’s about the way in which light spreads and envelopes and encompasses.  It’s about how impossible it is to say that light is ‘mine’ or even, in any restricted way, ‘ours’.  The light is only the light if it illumines everyone.  In the same way that salt is only doing its job if it spreads its taste through the whole dish.

‘Let your light shine,’ says Jesus.  But it is important to remember that the light is not really ours.  ‘The true light,’ as John puts it, ‘which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’  There is huge danger in any nation thinking that it has ownership of the light, huge danger in any church thinking the same.  In 1923 the Church of Scotland published the first of its infamous series of reports, ‘On the menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality’.  Its arguments bore worrying similarities to some of the rhetoric currently coming from the other side of the Atlantic.

It was a campaign not against the Irish, not against Catholics, but against Irish Catholics – they were, it was thought, bringing danger, division, disaster; they were a threat to our way of life; they failed to integrate; they had other loyalties, other priorities.  And, it was said, their race was basically inferior to ours.  The Church of Scotland believed at that time that the light of Christ was ours – and not only were we not about to share it, but others had no light to offer us.  Luckily for us, the government of the day did not accede to our demands.  But the government of our country in our day is coming pretty close to saying the same kinds of things about people from other places – that we have no light we want to share with them, and they have no light to share with us.  And the government across the water is busy coming up with more extreme examples of the same kinds of attitude and behaviour.

The true light enlightens everyone; so if a light is not for everyone it is not the true light.  We cannot claim to follow Christ if we take the light of Christ and seek to hide it, or limit it; we cannot claim to follow Christ if we cannot recognise the light when we see it in others.  It is not our light, but it is ours to share.  Jesus told us to do it; and Isaiah had already explained how to do it:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

We may never have managed it; we may not be anywhere near achieving it; but the vision of the city ought to still to summon us, wherever we are; so that, wherever we are, we may still hear and act on the words: ‘let your light shine’.

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