Just A Little Light


A passage in my father-in-law’s textbook on Forest Ecology describes a fascinating botanical phenomenon. In some heavily wooded areas, closely spaced large trees create a canopy so dense that only a small fraction of sunlight penetrates the forest understory. In order to survive, certain plants are adapted to the light-deprived environment. They make use of “sunflecks,” those rare and unpredictable rays of sunlight that pierce through the growing and ever-moving branches and leaves, illuminating the foliage below for moments or only seconds. The plants engage in short bursts of photosynthesis between long periods of relative inactivity. It turns out that just a little bit of light makes a tremendous difference in whether certain plants live or die, and in the overall composition and health of a particular ecosystem.[1]

I remembered the sunflecks while I was reading Jesus’ words about the light of the world, the light on the lampstand, and challenge to let your light shine. Many of us sang about it in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,

let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

 In context, Jesus has been preaching on a Galilean hillside, and his followers have been listening to a countercultural message. When Jesus speaks what we call the “beatitudes,” his statements about who is blessed and why are contrary to what his hearers would have expected. Now, he continues in that vein, challenging his listeners to live in a manner contrary to what they commonly observe. Jesus means that when the world all around seems crazy, angry, and mean-spirited, his followers are supposed be saner, calmer, and more generous.  Christians are supposed to be different, somehow.

Our understanding of Jesus’ message is broadened and deepened when we see the care with which Matthew shows how Jesus’ story echoes Moses’ story.  Like Moses, the identity of Jesus’ true father is cloaked in mystery. As an infant, he escapes a slaughter of innocent children ordered by a king. Before his ministry is inaugurated, he is tested in the wilderness. Early in his ministry, he ascends a mountain to begin his teaching. Though there are similarities, there are also major differences.  For instance, Moses on the mountain receives guidelines for living in the form of the Ten Commandments, whereas Jesus on the mountain GIVES guidelines for living in the form of the beatitudes. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he says, “for they will be filled.” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” When Jesus is finished uttering all the beatitudes, he goes on to explain the difference it will make for his disciples to embrace them: those who hear and practice his word will be salt in a world that often is tasteless, and light in a world that often is dark.

You may imagine yourself too lowly and insignificant to live out Jesus’ ideals in any world-changing way. But Jesus, who calls us to let our light shine, also responds mercifully to those who relate to him in humility and trust. He listens, cares, and empowers. Those who follow him need not be perfect, just different enough to draw attention to him, just a little light in a dark world.

Researchers in Brussels, Belgium, conducted an experiment in which robotic cockroaches were coated with a chemical compound that tricked real cockroaches to accept them into their community. They knew that cockroaches are gregarious, and prefer to live in groups, so they observed one community long enough to devise a hypothesis about how it chose its home.  The scientists suspected that a group decision emerges because each individual follows simple rules: wander around randomly, but spend more time in a place if you sense that it is A) dark, and B) has other cockroaches. So they equipped their robots with miniature wheels, a light sensor, and an infrared sensor to detect nearby cockroaches. When they put the robots together in an environment with many dark shelters, sure enough, the robots and cockroaches behaved as a group, and all ended up huddled together under the same roof.

Now, the experiment took an even more interesting turn. The scientists decided to reprogram the robots and change one of their rules: they exchanged the robots’ preference for darker places with a preference for lighter ones. Then they placed the roaches and robots in an environment with dark and light shelters. What the scientists discovered was that the whole group would end up resting in a brighter place, even though roaches normally prefer the dark. [2]

Now, some of you may be wondering about the pastor’s good sense in comparing people to cockroaches. But, really, I’m just practicing the old rabbinical principle of interpreting from the lesser to the greater. If a little robot can dramatically alter the behavior of insects, then how much more can a Christian, living as Jesus intends, alter the values and behavior of the communities in which he or she lives, and lead others from darkness to light?

A few weeks ago, I said to you that a life of faith isn’t so much about escaping messiness by saying that it is only an illusion, or by pretending that we are above it, but rather inviting Jesus into our messiness, and asking him to do something about it. The good news of the gospel is that “the Word became flesh and lived among us …” And we, who give ourselves to be God’s enfleshed voice, hands, and feet, are Christ for the world today.  That tangible quality of fleshly ministry in a material world is present in today’s gospel text. Being “Christ for the world today” will make a difference in our world being either tasteless or tasteful, characterized by darkness, or illuminated with light.

Preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor tells about a time she was out doing errands. Her arm was bandaged up after treatment for an injury. She was in line at the post office, and next to her was a parent with a young daughter, who asked about her injury. The girl, rather spontaneously and in a compassion born of experiencing some injury herself, did what a parent certainly had done for her: she bent her face toward Brown-Taylor, and kissed her wounded hand.[3]

If you’re like most of us, then there are days you wonder what difference your little light can make in the darkness of the world’s big problems. Remember, sunflecks can make a whole community of plants grow. A few small creatures with a preference for light can lead a whole community out of darkness. A small kiss can help cure a large hurt. Jesus said that just a little light can make a big difference.

“You are the light of the world …. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

[1] Burton V. Barnes, et. al., Forest Ecology: Fourth Edition, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998, p. 189 ff.

[2] Nell Greefieldboyce, “Robots Infiltrate, Influence Cockroach Groups,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 15 November 2007, transcript accessed at npr.com on 18 Nov. 2007.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Saving the World, One Person at a Time,” a sermon delivered at the Festival of Homiletics, Central Lutheran ELCA, Minneapolis, 17 May 2011.


~ by JohnH1962 on February 9, 2014.

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