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You are the light of the world!
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on February 6, 2011


Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…” and “You are the light of the world.” Salt and Light – two basic necessities for life; and two signs of God’s life in us.   And Jesus said, emphatically, that we ARE the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

To say that someone is the “salt of the earth” has taken on a meaning in our culture that is based on this passage of scripture, but that has a slightly different meaning. We use the phrase to mean that someone is humble and unpretentious. Its meaning in the Sermon on the Mount is not entirely clear, but we can discern something of its meaning from the context, and that is that Jesus’ followers are, first of all, important to the life of the world, just as salt is an important ingredient to life; that they enrich or add to the flavor of the world, or perhaps more accurately draw out its natural flavors. 

I’m sure there’s a sermon in there somewhere, but I’m much more drawn this morning to the next image he uses, and that is that “you are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, 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.” 

Perhaps the most famous reference to this passage comes from a sermon preached by the man who would become the very first Governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop. While still enroute to the newly founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, this visionary Puritan minister preached a sermon titled, “A Model of Christian Charity” on board the ship, Arbella, as they sailed into Boston Harbor in 1630. Winthrop believed that this new colony had a divine purpose and destiny, to become a beacon to the world. He quoted from the passage in Micah we heard last week, enjoining his hearers to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” and he set forth principles for the ordering of a new kind of society that would reflect the values and principles he discerned in the Bible. And it was his contention that the eyes of the world would be upon them, and would judge them by how well they lived out these values, and that they would indeed be a light to the world and “a city set on a hill [which] cannot be hid.” 

Winthrop’s sense of the unique and divinely inspired mission of which they were a part in establishing this and other colonies was often cited in later times by those seeking to justify the principle of American exceptionalism, for example in the 19th century doctrine of Manifest Destiny, and even today by those who want to justify our neo-colonial and neo-imperialist ambitions.

I’m pretty sure that’s not what John Winthrop had in mind. 

But I’d like to share a modern-day example of what it means to be a light to the world, and to be a city built on a hill that cannot be hid. And it takes place in one of the most unlikely places in the world – in the poorest region of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country, Haiti’s Central Plateau. 

Two weeks ago nine of us from Christ Church were in Haiti, where we were witnesses to the poverty and disease and the lack of basic necessities like clean water that we have come to associate with this poor Caribbean nation, and especially since last year’s devastating earthquake. We were also witnesses to what can happen when people with vision and with a commitment to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God” can actually do.

Cange is a small village that sits up on a hill. It sits up on a hill because when a dam was put on the Artibonite River in 1959, people whose villages were flooded had to scramble up into the hills to escape the rising waters. The steep cliffs in that area forced them up to a place where they could settle, but that had no water supply. So for years the women had to go 600 feet down to the water’s edge every day, fill their water containers, and climb back up the rocky hillsides 600 vertical feet back to their village, just to have water. 

Forty years ago a Haitian Episcopal priest named Father Fritz Lafontant went to serve this community.   Fr. Lafontant is not one to simply accept things as they are. He is a visionary and a builder. He knew that access to water was essential to building a community in this place. Through the Diocese of Haiti’s relationship with the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, an appeal went out for civil engineers to come and help them find a solution to this problem. One of the people who responded to that invitation was Pierce Williams, father of our own Clarkson Williams. He and others began making regular trips to Haiti. They designed and built with funding from Episcopalians in South Carolina and lots of good Haitian help along the way, a pumping station that brought water up that 600 foot hill to the village of Cange. This turned out to be a feat that would transform this impoverished little village in the middle of nowhere, into a beacon of hope, not only to the people of the Central Plateau, but to developing countries around the world. 

Several years after the pumping station was built, a young Harvard medical student and PhD candidate in anthropology by the name of Paul Farmer went to Haiti to study and look for solutions to the problems of infectious disease in poor areas. When he went to Cange, he met Fr. Lafontante, and a partnership was born.  Zanmi Lasant is Haitian Creole for Partners in Health, which has become a leading organization in the fight against infectious disease around the world. Twenty-five years later, this little village of Cange has perhaps the finest hospital in Haiti, where medical students from Harvard go to do internships with Haitian doctors, and where we met a young woman named Sabrina who was a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School doing her residency in anesthesiology. Her perfect American English betrayed the fact that she had grown up in Port-au-Prince, and had now come home to her native Haiti to serve as a doctor there.

Every morning around 6 am the lines began forming just outside where some of us stayed. People coming for medical care – some to the multi-drug resistant TB clinic; others to an ophthalmology clinic or the pediatric ward with their sick children.   The village begins to come alive before dawn, with voices outside our windows sometimes as early as 4 am. By six, young people are beginning to practice their musical instruments, and groups begin their rehearsals in the church just next door. Over a thousand students go to school in a beautiful school building each day, primary grades in the morning, and secondary in the afternoons.   And then there’s Jackie Williams (Clarkson’s mother who now lives there) opening the Artisan Center where she teaches a variety of textile arts and English classes, a real steel magnolia who serves generally as grandmother in residence to the entire community. (As I look out here this morning and see her two granddaughters, Casey and Lindsay, I can only say "thank you for sharing your grandmother with so many other people.")

Throughout our stay we visited several outlying villages, some of them much closer to what Cange was 40 years ago. Fr. Lafontant is still there, and his vision is clear: to help all of these villages become beacons of hope for Haiti’s desperate poor. That vision starts in each of these communities with building a school, and then later a church, and providing access to health care for all. Some of them still need access to water before any of this can happen. 

We were privileged to worship in the church in Cange on Sunday, and to get to know people and hear their stories throughout our stay. Yes, we did a variety of tasks overseen by Jackie Williams, Clarkson’s dear mother, who at 78 continues to live and work in Cange – tasks given to us mostly to assuage our consciences about why we were there. But our primary mission was one of exploration and discovery, and to be witnesses to what is possible when people have a vision.

We all, I believe, came home filled with a sense of hope from what we witnessed, and yet deeply aware of the enormous need throughout the country of Haiti. We will be sharing more of what we saw later this month in a Forum, and we want to have a family conversation here at Christ Church about whether we might be called to commit to a sustained partnership in helping bring the vision to reality for a community there.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”  

I hear Jesus saying these words to us here this morning also, right here at Christ Church on Central Street in Andover.   This weekend your vestry went away on retreat, Friday night and Saturday, to pray, and to listen for God’s voice calling to us.   Who are we called to be? What is the light that is in us, and that we are called to bring into the world right here on this corner? Our retreat leaders skillfully guided us in a series of reflections, opportunities for silence, and sharing among ourselves about what kind of community we envision ourselves being and becoming. I was moved by the depth and the honesty of our reflections, and by the passionate desire we share for strengthening and deepening our life together in this parish.  It was a wonderful beginning to the year with this new vestry. We are blessed with some wonderful, discerning, talented, and visionary leaders in this place.

The light we as Christians are called to share, whether as individuals or as a congregation, or yes, even an out-of-the-way village in central Haiti, is never our own light, but God’s light in us, and it can never be put in the service of our own need for accomplishment or power or prestige. St. Paul said it beautifully to the church in Corinth: “We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” (I Cor. 2:12) 

We are a community of many gifts, and together they have such unimaginable potential – potential to shine a very bright light and a beacon of hope, in fact – if we will but let our light shine. And if we do, Jesus has promised that people will see our good works and give glory to God. 

And that, my brothers and sisters, is why we are here.



Last Published: August 16, 2011 1:20 PM