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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Feb 16, 2020

Passage: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Sermons for Year A (2019-2020)

Detail:

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (Year A - 2020)
February 16th, 2020
St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

Deuteronomy 30:15-20        1 Corinthians 3:1-9        Matthew 5:21-37

 

When I started thinking about my sermon for last week, I began heading in a direction which, by the end of the week had shifted over to the meditation on salt that y’all heard last Sunday. But since the readings in this part of the Epiphany season are meant to be taken as a whole - and since this morning’s lesson from Deuteronomy dovetails quite well with the lesson from last week, my sermon this morning assumes that you heard the Gospel reading from last week - the one where Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”

So, as I said, I began last week thinking about Jesus’ words about a city on a hill. And the first thing that came to my mind was a memory from high school. In Junior Year, we studied American literature, and one of the first things we read was a sermon by John Winthrop. The sermon was delivered shortly before Winthrop and his fellow settlers arrived in New England to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It’s popularly known as the “city on a hill sermon,” and in the Euro-centric assessment of American literature, it’s considered one of the earliest expressions of a distinctively American ethos. Winthrop’s sermon is sometimes credited with giving birth to the ideology of “Manifest Destiny,” or the notion that the westward expansion of the United States was both justified and inevitable because of the perceived, obvious superiority of the American way of life. And because most of us - or at least I hope most of us - know the ugly history of what “Manifest Destiny” meant to the unfortunate many indigenous peoples who happened to be in the way of America’s westward expansion, I thought it might be worth revisiting Winthrop’s sermon to see how what Jesus once said about a city on a hill could lead to a trail of tears. Or how the idea of being righteous could be perverted to mean that being righteous must include a total disregard for the dignity of others. 

And I was surprised by what I found. Winthrop, like many early 17th century English Protestants, was deeply shaped by the theology of John Calvin, and one of the features of Calvin’s theology was an absolute insistence on the sovereignty of God; that God had ordered the world to be a certain way and that things were the way they were because that’s how God wants them to be so don’t go trying to upend the divine order of things. And this thinking is at play in Winthrop’s initial argument. But what he does with it is important: 


Winthrop says, “God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection.”

You can see how some might read this as a justification for why the poor should stay poor and the rich should stay rich, or why some should be free to wield power and others forced into subjection, but Winthrop spells out three reasons for why some are rich and powerful and some are poor and weak. The first reason is that, just as a mighty king has many stewards to distribute royal favor, so God chose some to have special concern to care for the needs of others. The second reason is so that the powerful should learn to exercise the virtues of mercy and gentleness, and the poor should learn the virtues of patience and faith. The third reason, in Winthrop’s words, was so “that every man might have need of others, and from hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection. From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honorable than another or more wealthy etc., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his Creator and the common good of the creature.”

Having made his case, Winthrop goes on to say that his community should hold fast to the idea that all are meant to work for and provide for the good of all. And his counsel is to follow the prophetic command, “to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.” Again, in Winthrop’s words,  “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…So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” 

And if his community holds fast to this ideal, Winthrop says, “then 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.” And Winthrop ends his sermon with the words we have from the lesson from Deuteronomy for this morning: the choice between life and prosperity, death and adversity - the promise of following God’s commandments and being blessed, and the warning of disaster for choosing to go astray.

Of course, you can probably see how the Manifest Destiny idea comes into play if you assume that all of the “do justice love kindness and walk humbly” stuff is only meant for those on the inside of the community and to heck with everyone else. But if Winthrop’s message is meant generally to be applied to how people in his community should treat everyone, then it’s pretty solid advice that I think stands the test of time. And I think that Winthrop’s words are worth hearing again as we survey the increasing polarization taking place in communities across America. 

The question I think that Winthrop’s sermon raises is whether we want our communities, generally speaking, to be that city on a hill to which all others should look in hope - even setting aside the 17th century Protestant underpinnings of Winthrop’s message. More specifically, do we want our community - this community - to be that city on a hill? Do we, here, still value Winthrop’s vision of a community of people who want to “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”?  

I think it fair to sat that, in the many communities across this land, we are losing a sense of unity, and that the bonds of peace are sorely strained. But I do not yet believe that we have collectively reached the lamentable stage in our common life where we have gone so far astray that God has completely withdrawn his help from us. If that were the case, then I think quite rightly we’d be nothing but a byword among the nations and not that city on a hill. But there is always that danger. 

And so, as it was for the ancient Israelites, and as it was for Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, so it is for us. We have set before us a choice between the way of life and prosperity, and the way of death and adversity. The way of life is still to do justice love kindness and walk humbly with our God. The way of death is to spurn all of those things. My prayer for us here is that each day, we will all strive to choose the path of life so that we at least rightly may be called “a city on a hill.”