Where I went to college the student newspaper – and the campus - was called the City on a Hill.
That was for two reasons. One, obvious, literal one, was that we were up on a hillside overlooking the town and you could see from miles away our white buildings shining in the sun. You could go down to the cliffs by the ocean, look back up, point, and say, ‘that’s my college.’
The other reason was that we were intended to be an example, a model, even a light, illuminating what was all around us. The university motto was “FIAT LUX” – not Oxford’s “Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light)” but the University of California’s “Let there be light”.
And it fit that our founding provost was Page Smith, an American historian. He knew – and told us – that the early New England colonists brought with them the idea of being ‘as a city upon a hill’, that could not be hid.
This very passage was their inspiration: they sought to build, right here on earth, an outpost of the kingdom of heaven. They hoped to found their community in such a way that the reign of God would be manifest in them and in their conduct and piety.
That was New England. I’m afraid we did not always come up to their standards. I’m afraid they didn’t either. But we tried – and so did they.
We tried – in a secular way – to be a model community. My own college modeled itself on the ideal of Francis Bacon, ‘the pursuit of truth in the company of friends’.
Not a bad ideal.
What it reflected was the light that has its original more clearly shown in this gospel.
The light of the world is the light of Christ. We are the light of the world because he is the light of the world. And he calls us to be – he declares us to be – the light of the world.
Jesus says to us, not you will be – or should be – or might be, given time – but you are: you are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
You are what gives the whole world its flavor, what draws it out like salt in a recipe; you are what purifies and preserves, as salt does, so that the meal does not spoil or get rotten.
You are the light of the world; you are the lamp that sheds light on everything around it.
It would be silly to deny it. That is who you are!
That is who we are – and what we are meant to be, what we are called to be.
What good news.
What does it mean to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
What would it look like to do justice – to be one of the blessed, those who strive for righteousness?
What would it look like to love mercy – to perform intentional acts of kindness?
What would it look like to walk humbly with your God? It isn’t simple – ‘walk this way’ – but it is pure in intention.
Is this not the fast that I choose: to show justice toward the weak, compassion toward the downtrodden, and charity toward the poor?
The point of fasting – of giving something up for Lent or for a season or for a day – is to let something go for a positive reason, because we have something larger in mind. There is some larger purpose – there is more to life than food, or clothing, or shelter, or safety.
Or safety. That is the dangerous part: to give up safety – for the sake of peace.
The peace of Christ is not the same thing as avoiding danger, or even conflict. The peace of Christ that is no peace, not as the world knows it. The peace of Christ is the welcoming of righteousness into the world, in every act, being, and gift of our lives.
Listen to what a young pastor said to a large gathering of church people back in 1934:
“There is no peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained that peace means giving oneself completely to God's commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying our destiny in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes.
That is where the people Isaiah spoke to were falling down. They were acting piously enough but their gifts at the altar were bribes; they hoped God would be on their side. They were going through the motions of religion. Their sacrifices were not real because they had no foundation in conduct.
Isaiah was not denouncing them for their ritual; he was denouncing the emptiness of their hearts.
If you have a quarrel with your brother, and you are on the way to the altar to make an offering, first, set down your gift, go and be reconciled, and then come to the altar.
The ritual is made real in the actions of the people. That is what Isaiah was missing; that is what, he said, true religion – and true spirituality – requires.
Again, what is required of you, O mortal – is the justice, love, and mercy of God.
To walk humbly with your God is to know your right place in the universe.
To walk humbly with your God is to accept your calling.
This calling, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – that young pastor in 1934 – recognized, could require real self-sacrifice, not for a cheap win over one’s opponents, but out of loving obedience.
He went on to say this:
“Victory is won when the way leads to the cross.”
Not an easy lesson – not a happy ending – in the way we ordinarily think of such things.
But a martyr’s death – and that is what Bonhoeffer’s own faith led to – is not the end; it is the beginning. A martyr’s death is an extraordinary calling – rare, uncommon, but real.
The gift of life – the gift of living for God – is the common calling, the one most of us share: we are invited by God into the living of life for others, to live life abundantly, to live life as children of God, and to give the gifts of that abundant life to those around us.
So, we serve one another – and the stranger, in our midst and far away. And as we do so, we serve Christ:
“When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink, or naked and clothe you, or sick or in prison and visit you?”
When you did as much for the least of these, my children: and you are my children too.
It is a calling that requires the sacrifice that is not dramatic – not likely to get attention – the simple sacrifice we witness every day, of charity, of hope, of faith shared among us.
It is the calling to be who we really are, as we were made to be: salt and light.
May we be in your world, Lord, the seasoning that brings out the flavor in everything, the preserver and sanctifier that makes every good thing healthy and wholesome.
May we be in your world, Lord, as the radiance reflecting your glory and revealing your love. And, if it be your holy will, grant that this church, a place of your abiding, be continued still to be a sanctuary and a light.
Holy God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring healing to all wounds, make whole all that is broken, speak truth to all illusion, and shed light in every darkness, that all creation will see your glory and know your Christ. Amen.
NOTES and SOURCES
Holy God, you gather the whole universe
into your radiant presence
and continually reveal your Son as our Savior.
Bring healing to all wounds,
make whole all that is broken,
speak truth to all illusion,
and shed light in every darkness,
that all creation will see your glory and know your Christ. Amen.
* Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
* Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
* 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
* Matthew 5:13-20
There is no peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God's commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Peace Speech", Ecumenical Christian Council for Life and Work, Fanø, Denmark, 28 August 1934.
Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010) p. 241.
The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford, 2004) p. 899-900, explains that in Isaiah 58
The prophet denounces the Judeans, focusing not on pagan practices but on apparently proper religious practices that the Judeans perform hypocritically. (People pray for divine intervention in their quarrels against others; their prayers and fasts have selfish purposes, not sacred ones.) The Judeans observe rituals such as fasting, but they do so only for their own benefit, not out of true devotion. Real humility toward God would engender a desire for justice toward the weak, compassion toward the downtrodden, and charity toward the poor. Then fasting would involve a willingness to give up one’s own things rather than the hope to acquire salvation.