1 Corinthians 2:1-12
We have such amazing texts today. They don’t just pull us through the centuries, the take us through entire sagas. From “your ancient ruins will be rebuilt”—there’s a story right there, how did the ancient ruins come about?—to “you are a city on a hill.” What stories could we tell of that city? Today is one of those days when it’s easy to say that Scripture makes us alive—who can deny its power? Is this not 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? How can we be silent when we hear God declare his vision for a people in darkness and in chains? I decide to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. All I can say to that is yes—and let me only know that, too. Or how about—let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven? This is the charge we give at baptism, symbolized by the baptismal candle, both a charge and a promise from God, that by the Holy Spirit, you will do good in this world. I can see these texts in the hands of a good film editor and sound engineer, who could make of them a teaser for the movie version of Scripture. I picture lots of standing around on windswept cliffs and swooping crane shots and thrilling music. It is all very glorious and it is oh so tempting to say—“Yes! That’s me! That’s what I want to be!” After all, who doesn’t want to be a city on a hill, a light in the dark, messenger of good news?
But he wasn’t the only President to think of America in this way. Some of you are old enough to remember John F. Kennedy, who said, “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…History will not judge our endeavors—and a government cannot be selected—merely on the basis of color or creed or even party affiliation.” Nothing tempts the dreamers and the ambitious like the favorable judgment of history, to make a name that rings through the centuries.
I don’t think any of you are old enough to remember old John Winthrop, standing on the deck of a ship as it embarked for this land. It was he who first described America as a shining city on a hill, thus: “Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? He goes on: “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.”
There are a lot of musts in that speech. No pressure, Puritans—you guys just had to create the greatest society humanity had ever know. Of course they failed. Every case I have mentioned was a failure. Instead of JFK it was LBJ, no one’s idea of a inspirational figure, who got the civil rights bill passed and said, as president, “We shall overcome.” And Reagan’s city had open doors, all right, doors that were open to release the weak and small of society into the wilderness. And, I’d submit to you, each of those cases were marked by the wrong sweeping narrative. They were idolatrous. Jesus, as it happens, was not talking to Americans, neither Pilgrims nor Democrats nor Republicans. Jesus was speaking to his disciples, a motley collection of ragtag Jews from Galilee. And, I suppose, Jesus is speaking to us, we who have come here not with hope for the future of this land, but dread, not simply as Americans but as people who have some knowledge of the crucified Lord. The sweeping narrative Jesus tells is more than the story of a nation. It is the story of the Spirit that searches the heart of God, and fills us with light.
In Lutheranism, we make a distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The rapture of the city on the hill, with its red, white, and blue flags snapping in the wind, a bulwark and redoubt for freedom: that’s the theology of glory, that God will bless our city if we just make it good enough. It’s the very idea that any nation in particular is blessed by God in ways that others cannot be blessed. It is the idea that one particular city is a permanent city, instead of a city that one day will become ancient ruins. That’s the theology of glory, and the theology of glory is a lie.
I love that Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, emphasizes how weak he is, how his public presence was less than inspiring. I’ve watched Pope Francis on television, and it always seems to me that his presence is weak—his voice is weak, he moves like he might collapse at any moment. But people I know that have met him, or have been in the room say that something happens when he speaks. After he speaks, they say, it seems natural to call him your Holiness. And I think this is because he is humble and just wants to speak Christ crucified. The theology of the cross does not lead to a proud city, an example to all, an ideal nation. The point of the city on a hill is not to be an example, but to be a place of welcome. The theology of the cross is a message about God sharing our suffering, and giving over himself so that our suffering may be overcome. Pope Francis seems to be taking the proud city of the Vatican and opening it to the lowly. And there are some who don’t like to see that happen.
Jesus says to the people, you are like a city on a hill. You are light to the world. The city is wherever Christ’s people gather in the Spirit. I am struck today to see that Jesus compares his disciples to things that must be used and shared, things whose worth is in their usefulness for others. Salt is precious because it opens flavor, it preserves. In some ancient societies sharing salt was a declaration of peace. And light—light, Jesus says, was to be shared, to be taken to the dark places. Good works, Jesus says, are for God’s glory, God who has chosen no particular place for his presence but rather dwells everywhere all at once. The prophet Isaiah tells us the light God gives us shines when we share what we have, when we untie the bonds of injustice.
But more than that, we are salt and light because God tells us we are those things. We are salt and light because the Spirit makes us those things. The great thing about light is that it is undiminished when it is shared. Indeed, the opposite happens. There is more of it when you share it. And when it is raised and put in high place, it is there not simply to be admired, but illuminate the entire house, to bring joy and gladness to everyone.
If you think of the strife and enmity in our nation now, how the city on the hill we continue to imagine ourselves to be, now stands under a cloud, think of salt and light. The answer to this time is not to condemn, but rather to be salt and light to those who sit in darkness. I’m not a big one to tell people what they must do, but I will say this: truth is not truth unless it is spoken in love.
The Rev. John Z. Flack