“The Shining Nation on the Hill”

Homily by the Rev. Rhonda Rubinson, priest-in-charge

Church of the Intercession, NYC

July 5, 2020

Texts:  Hebrews 11:8-16, Matthew 5:43-48


In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I don’t need to tell you that it’s July 4th weekend;  even if you live in a bubble or a bunker most likely the increasing crescendo of fireworks over the past month has certainly let you know that we were approaching this holiday weekend.  But even if the fireworks abate now that the holiday is past (please God!), there is much in America on this Independence Day weekend that will not go away as quickly.  We’re still in the throes of an unpredictable, dangerous pandemic, and nobody knows which way it will go – will we behave responsibly and tamp down the spread regardless of whether a vaccine is developed quickly or not? – and even if a safe, effective vaccine is found, how many people will actually take it? How will this unfold?

Directly related to the pandemic is our economy – astronomical numbers of people are unemployed; many businesses are failing while many fewer are starting up or thriving – and we don’t know whether the future holds a recovery or a depression that could dwarf the one that began in 1929.  Which way is it going to go?

That’s not all.  We’re in the midst of a social justice revolution that is gaining traction and making headway all across  our land, but we similarly cannot predict where the movement will end up – will our society become more just in a permanent way, or will there be violent backlash that can threaten to take us backwards again? To top it all off, we are in an election season that is particularly vicious, and subject to all manner of influence from both within and outside of our country.  It is not out of bounds to say that all these factors together call into doubt our ability as a nation to survive into the year 2021.  Within it all, we are wrestling with the most critical question we can ask at this liminal moment: Who do we want to be as a nation?   we are all also asking the question that voices all of our deepest fears: What will become of us?   What is going to happen?

We cannot know the answers.  The particulars of the future are not known to any mortal; part of the human experience is that we are limited to the past and the present.  Apart from some prophets (whose prophecies can only really be understood in hindsight), we are all in the same boat, blind to the future.  But God who is outside of time knows all of time past, present, and future, as one, together.  The Bible says the Lord “knows the end from the beginning,” yet despite the fact that we have been created in God’s image, God in her infinite wisdom has shut our eyes to the future.  Why?  Because it is the only way that we can learn faith.  And faith is something that most of us are sorely lacking right now, just when we need it the most.  It takes no faith at all to believe in a certainty, but it takes tremendous faith to navigate the storms of life, both personal and national.  Despite the incontrovertible fact that our time has certainly not distinguished itself as an Age of Faith, that is the direction where the Holy Spirit is taking us at this moment in time: inviting us, urging us, compelling us to embrace faith.

Careful here, I’m not suggesting that we become a theocracy, or that we abolish the line between church and state, or that we establish a national religion – one of the remarkably original characteristics of our nation and our constitution is that it allows every person the right to their own faith, or to none at all.  No, what I am saying is that it is that duty of each of us as Christians to resist the enormous pressure to become a lemming or to succumb to fear, and instead find the courage to be the church, following the guidance of Scripture, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and, as Presiding Bishop Curry calls it, the Way of Love of Jesus.  Having that kind of faith in our kind of circumstances is hard, because it will almost certainly run counter to both our own inclinations and the will of the majority.  For these reasons, it’s not surprising that the history of faith in our country is checkered.  Let’s go into the Scriptures to trace its trajectory.

In our reading today from Hebrews, the writer lifts up Abraham, the progenitor of all the People of the Book, saying,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

The earliest settlers of our country considered themselves modern day Abrahams, leaving their homeland by faith and setting out for a new Promised Land here in North America.  Perhaps the most famous sermon on this subject is by John Winthrop:  he preached “A Model of Christian Charity” as he was embarking on the journey from Southampton, England to Boston in 1630; it contains the famous description of the settlement of the New World as a “shining city on a hill,” referring to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel saying, “You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” The gist of the sermon is that the standards are set high for settlers, because God’s eyes are upon them.  He advises on how to avoid a “shipwreck” of this activity – a very strong word for someone about to embark on a dangerous transatlantic voyage.  Winthrop says:

To provide for our posterity (we must) follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God, . . . we must make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together. . . so shall we keep the unity of the bond of peace (then) the Lord will be our God and delight to be among us . . . so we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill, the eyes of all people shall be upon us.

The idea that this country has given a God–given destiny is deeply embedded in our national identity, for good and ill. It certainly demanded faith from our original settlers, as it did from those who fought for our independence from Britain, but its values and goals have always been, and still remain, aspirational.  Therefore American politicians have always loved to quote Winthrop’s sermon, most famously and repeatedly, President Ronald Reagan.

We know that Winthrop and his fellow settlers brought more than their vision of American as a “shining City on a Hill” with them to these shores: they also brought European diseases that would decimate Native Americans, and the horrific slave trade, which legacy we are still struggling to overcome today.  Even while all of that was transpiring, there was a very different world outlook beginning to take root both on both sides of the Atlantic. Within a century of the first settlements here, the birth of humanism has gained so much power that is has as much to say about the issues facing our country now than any God-centered religion.  Listen to this – a quote from the 18th century philosopher and playwright Friedrich Schiller and see if it doesn’t exactly describe our political landscape today:

The public is now everything to me – my preoccupation, my sovereign, and my friend.  I belong to it alone.  I wish to place myself before this tribunal and no other.  It is the only thing I fear and respect.  A feeling of greatness comes over me with the idea that the only fetter I wear is the verdict of the world – and that the only throne I shall appeal to is the human soul. 

This has become our new religion – and the desire to win the acclaim of people – whether through likes on Facebook, views on YouTube, votes in an election, or ratings on television – has totally eclipsed most people’s faith in God as the compass by which they set the direction of their lives.  We know that Jesus knew how deadly public opinion could be – the same crowd that shouted “Hosannas” on Palm Sunday as Jesus entered Jerusalem cried, “Crucify him!” less than a week later, on Good Friday.  Our public today is no better, yet most people live their lives desperately trying to fill the craving they feel for their approval.

Church, we are called on to do the opposite of that crowd.  In today’s small slice of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says,

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

For those of us who only acknowledge those who agree with us, or delight in crushing political opposition, or insist on valuing our self-worth only by the measure of our popularity, this is a bracing wake-up call.  We must realize that we, yes even as a church, have the same tendency to be tribal and make a religion of our world view instead of Jesus’ perspective.  We will fall short of Jesus’ admonition to us to “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” – and that’s the point.  Just like there would be no need for faith if we knew the future, there would be no need for faith if we did not need constant forgiveness for our failures, our sins.

The humility that the Sermon on the Mount demands of us is the strongest incentive we have to grow our faith – because we know that without Jesus, we are nothing.  We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, and most importantly on this Independence Weekend Sunday, we have no future as a nation.  It isn’t swagger that will overcome the pandemic, or save the economy, or defeat systemic racism, or get us through a terrifying election season – it will be humility, faith, submission to Jesus’ Way of Love.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”  My brothers and sisters, we are that “shining City on a Hill,” now more properly called the “shining Nation on a Hill,” but we will only fulfill that hope for our country if we are willing to follow faith rather than fear, even – perhaps especially – if it’s unpopular with our peers.  That doesn’t matter at all, if that is what God is calling us to do, and who Jesus is calling us to be.