A City On A Hill: A 4th of July Reflection

In 1630, a ship named the Arbella left England bound for the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  On board the ship were religious dissidents who wanted to reform the Church of England by creating a new more purified community… otherwise known as Puritans.

Before the boat landed, Governor John Winthrop gave a sermon entitled “A Model of Christian Charity.”  When he gave this sermon, he wanted to remind the people on board of why they were traveling. And in so doing, he established one of the central ideas about the meaning of this new land that would be passed down for generations.  He said to these early colonists:

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… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world.  We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us… til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.

The Puritans who heard this sermon on board the ship already had a sense that they were embarking on something profound.  In fact, they saw parallels between the Israelites who were given a promised land by God and this new place to which they were heading.  But Winthrop wanted to remind the voyagers on that boat the other aspect of that story: the gift of a Promised Land was not a privilege but a responsibility.

Because part of Israel’s story in the Old Testament centers around the times they forgot this important truth.  And the longing we hear for the lost Jerusalem in the Book of Isaiah occurs during a period of exile, when the Israelites were removed from their Promised Land because they were unfaithful to God’s covenant.   Because they had forgotten “what the Lord [requires of us is] to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  They had forgotten that very same message John Winthrop wanted to make sure his fellow passengers remembered: being a “City On A Hill” is not a privilege but a responsibility.

And so we find ourselves 234 years after “The City On A Hill” became a country of our own. During those years, more religious groups followed the Puritans’ lead by making the dangerous voyage across the Atlantic to begin a new life.  Quakers came to Pennsylvania.  Catholics came to Maryland.  Jews came to New York.  When they came, many of them were in the same condition that Jesus sent the disciples forth in today’s Gospel reading, carrying no money bag, no sack, no sandals, “like lambs among wolves.”

KS_City_HillAnd while all who came over had different traditions and perspectives than did those Puritans, the idea that they were coming to a City On A Hill remained.

Throughout those years, there have been times when we have more than lived up to our promise… and we need to celebrate that today with all of the hot dogs and fireworks we can get our hands on.  Yet if we are honest, we also have to admit that we have had our failures too. There have been times when we too have forgotten that “what the Lord [requires of us is] to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”  We have had times when we have forgotten that being a “City on a Hill” is not a privilege but a responsibility.

But what we learn from Isaiah today is that in the midst of both our successes and our failures, God continues to walk with us.  As God eventually returned the Israelites to their Promised Land, God continues to help us to see past our imagined privileges so that we can fulfill our responsibilities to one another.  Because everybody longs for a place where prosperity flows like a river.  All peoples long for a place where God comforts them as a mother comforts her child.

And the fact that God continues to ask us to share h those around us—both within our borders and outside of them—is something truly worth celebrating.  Enjoy the fireworks.

Father Tom Gibbons was ordained a Paulist priest in 2012. Prior to becoming a priest, he spent time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix, AZ, working with immigrants in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. He's also worked as a graphic designer and web developer, serving nonprofits like Success For All Foundation, Baltimore City Head Start, and Catholic Relief Services. He previously wrote a blog entitled “Kicking and Screaming” for Busted Halo. After serving as a deacon at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Father Tom was sent to St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, where he first served as Associate Pastor and then as the Parish Administrator. In 2016, he produced a documentary on the founder of the Paulist Fathers, entitled “Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America” – featuring celebrity voices of Martin Sheen, Matt McCoy, and Bob Gunton. Father Tom is currently at work on a new documentary investigating the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in California with the film “Junipero Serra: Statue of Limitations,” scheduled for release in 2022. In addition to his work as Vice President of Paulist Productions, Father Tom also performs pastoral work at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Los Angeles, CA.