A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 9, 2012
Luke 11:34-36 GNT
“The Buddha’s Last Instruction” by Mary Oliver
All of us are familiar with the injunction that we are to be light to the world. Many of us learned this in Sunday school, as we heard our Sunday school teacher recount Jesus’ instruction to “let your light shine,” and as we learned the song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
But obviously, the “let your light shine” teaching is not limited to Christianity. We see a hint of it in Jewish writings where the people Israel collectively were called by the prophets to be “a light to the world.” Confucius reportedly said, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” And as Mary Oliver points out in her poem, “The Buddha’s Last Instruction,” the same teaching existed in Buddhism some 500 years before Jesus. Oliver quotes the Buddha, who is reported to have said, “Make of yourself a light.” So light as a universal religious symbol, and the injunction to the religious person to be light, is rather elementary and commonplace.
But in the somewhat difficult teaching attributed to Jesus in Luke 11:34-36, we see the metaphor of light turned in a different direction. Here Jesus is not talking about letting your light shine or being light to the world. Rather, Jesus is talking about the light that his followers allow to shine in through the eyes and illuminate them inwardly. “Your eyes are like a lamp for the body,” he said. “When your eyes are sound, your whole body is full of light.” This somewhat difficult teaching is based on an ancient understanding of the eye and sight. We all know that the eye responds to light coming from outside the body. But in ancient times, people believed that the eye emitted light like a lamp and that sight was made possible when the light from within the body met light from outside the body. Therefore, if the eye, the lamp of the body, is good so as to emit much light and then in turn receive much light, the whole body would be full of light. But if the eye is not good, unable to emit light, it would not be able to receive light as well.
Of course, the teaching is speaking metaphorically. In order to be enlightened, spiritually speaking, we have to be able to receive the spiritual light from without that may present itself to us. I like the way the contemporary translation, The Message, renders these verses: “Your eye is a lamp, lighting up your whole body. If you live wide-eyed in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.” Okay, so far no argument with that. As I have said, in the ancient understanding, the eyes were the portals or gateway to the body where light could come in. So the injunction was to be open to the light (i.e., wisdom, teaching, instruction,) around us so that our body, our life, would be full of light.
But here is the question and the point I have been driving at: What kind of light do we let flow through us? What got me to thinking about this question is a popular country and western song currently on the Top 20 playlist. The title of the song is simply “Glass,” and it is sung by the duo Thompson Square. It is a beautiful song, both the words and the music, and the first time I heard I said to myself, There is a sermon in there somewhere. Some of the words of the song go like this:
Trying to live and love
With a heart that can’t be broken
Is like trying to see the light
With eyes that can’t be opened.
We may shine, we may shatter
We may be picking up the pieces here on after
We are fragile, we are human
We are shaped by the light we let through us. . .
I love that last phrase: “We are shaped by the light we let through us.” Because there is a tremendous amount of truth in that, more than we might ever stop to think about. Each of us is shaped—each of our lives and destinies are shaped—by the particular light that we let through us. I am the person I am today, and you are the person you are today, because of the particular light I personally and you personally have let shine through us.
Allow me to elaborate with some personal examples. I was shaped somewhat by the congregation I grew up in. Though I have moved away from some of what I was taught in that small, rural, conservative congregation, in some degree I am still shaped by the particular light that I let shine through me during those formative years. One example of that shaping is a profound love of the Bible which has never changed, even though I interpret the Bible much differently than I did back then. Then I was shaped because I chose to attend East Tennessee State University rather than a small church-related college that I could have attended. I feel that I gained a much broader and more balanced view of life, religion and the world at ETSU than I might have at a small Bible or church-related college. I was shaped because I chose to attend Memphis Theological Seminary, a theologically moderate seminary, in a way that I wouldn’t have been had I attended a closer-to-home, more conservative seminary that I could have attended and where I actually took a couple of courses, or if I had attended the more liberal Vanderbilt Divinity School, which I considered attending for a time. And then I was shaped again because I chose to study for a Doctor of Ministry degree at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a theological school just as liberal as the first seminary where I took a couple of courses was conservative. Through all of my experiences, I have been shaped by the light I allowed to shine through me in a way I would not have been had my life gone in another direction. So it is with each of us and the choices we make.
Such leads us to think about how the world is different because of the particular light that people let shine through them. Such can turn out for either good or ill. For instance, I think of the great Methodist leader, John Wesley, whose heart “was strangely warmed” as he listened to someone read Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, and then how his life was changed again as he listened to Moravian missionaries sing during a treacherous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Wesley, because of the light he let shine through him, changed the course of the world with his impassioned preaching and the founding of the Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in America. Then I think of someone more contemporary like Wade Michael Page who let the “light” (if we could call it light) of Neo-Nazi teachings and hate rock lyrics shine through him, resulting in him entering the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 5, taking six innocent lives and wounding several others. Each of us is shaped—for good or for ill—by the outside influence we allow to shine into us and through us. And so, the teaching of Jesus becomes clearer, when he said, “when your eyes are no good, your whole body will be in darkness. . . Make certain, then, that the light in you is not darkness.”
The sad truth is, sometimes we have no control over the light (or darkness) that is around us and that is absorbed into our lives. For instance, the nature of a person’s job environment or family situation may be such that more darkness is prevalent than light. What does a person do under such circumstance? How do we self-regulate so that we are not overcome and influenced by dark influences rather than light influences? Perhaps part of the answer is just being aware of the situation and consciously choosing to go to and draw strength from other places and sources where positive light can be had.
What it all boils down to, then, is every book we pick up to read, every class or seminar or lecture we attend, every show we watch on television, or every talk radio program we listen to on the radio is emitting a particular kind of “light” that we are allowing to fill our minds and hearts. Now, this is not to say that we should be close-minded and not open to new ideas. Such certainly has not been the case in my own life. Because I was open to more progressive ideas, my life has been made all the richer. But it is to say that we should at least be cognizant of the influences—some of them subtle and subconscious—that we allow to infiltrate our minds and become part of who we are. And maybe sometimes we should exercise a little discretion and selectivity in what we see and hear, and consciously seek out that which is positive. Because whether we realize it or not, we are, indeed, shaped by the light we let through us. Amen.