Rev. Danielle K Bartz November 12, 2023
Matthew 25:1-13 “Tending to our Light”
Light cannot fade away into nothingness. Traveling through a perfect vacuum, light will keep going until it runs into an electron of an atom, which will then absorb the light. That is why, when our telescopes peer into space, we see phenomena that are billions of years old – the light from those galaxies or stellar nurseries, or whatever we are seeing has traveled unimpeded until it hit the electrons in the atoms that make up our telescopes. But, unless that happens, light will keep moving at full speed. Scientists remain curious about what happens when light reaches the edge of the universe, but they also know that the universe continues to expand – so it is entirely possible that the light expands with the universe.
I could keep going and just turn this sermon into a nerdy monologue about photons, wavelengths, and the amazing nature of light itself. In fact, writing this sermon was delayed a bit, because when I went online to reassure myself that I was remembering correctly what I learned in high school physics about light, I came across a fabulous website called ScienceLine. It is, admittedly, for K-12 students who want to ask scientist questions, but I can tell you, as an adult it is incredibly interesting. Students ask their questions, and research scientists from UC Berkley answer those questions. I also got way into the weeds on blackholes, but I will figure out a way to work that into a different sermon.
But the reason I was curious about the science behind how light is created and moves was because of the ubiquitous ways light is used as a metaphor for the divine. Religious scriptures, across traditions, and scriptures far older than the New Testament, reference light when trying to describe God. Indeed, in our shared creation mythology, God’s first act was to create light and that light of God then permeates all things. In Luke and Matthew – the two Gospels that have a birth narrative, light is used to help guide people to the Christ-child. In John, which does not tell the story of Jesus’ birth, light is used to nonetheless describe the miracle of the incarnation: “the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The Gospel of Thomas, which was not included in the final canon because of political reasons, also references light. In it Jesus tells the disciples that when they are asked where they came from to say this, “We came from the light, the place where the light came into being on its own accord and established itself and became manifest.” Which, Jesus says in another place in the Gospel of Thomas, is the “wonder of wonders.”
These ancient theologians may not have understood the science behind light – that it cannot fade away, and it will, if allowed to, exist for all time. But even if they didn’t know that, they understood that light was something amazing – something fundamental – something that can permeate even into the places where the shadows overwhelm. They knew that light was a metaphor for God. And, because of the gift of science, we can appreciate just how apt of a metaphor it is.
Today, light continues to be a medium through which we find connection to the divine. It is why we light candles for worship, or to invoke the memory of those we have lost. Theologians and philosophers, when trying to find words to describe humanity’s fundamental connection to God, often reference a ‘divine spark’ that we each carry within us. For those in the Quaker tradition, this is a core belief. But my favorite reference to this divine spark, or light, inside each of us comes from Victor Frankl – a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who wrote powerfully about what it means to maintain hope in a painful world. He said, “Each of us carries a unique spark of the divine, and each of us is also an inseparable part of the web of life.” Writing about his time in the concentration camp, it was that belief that each person carried within them a spark of the divine, a piece of God’s light, that gave his spirit what it needed to survive – wounded, yes, but not destroyed.
That is why the parable of today’s scripture is one that I am willing to contend with. Because, otherwise, I really don’t like it at all. In fact, on Tuesday morning in my clergy group, we spent an, unusually, focused hour trying to figure out this parable. After an hour of arguing, we all walked away feeling unsatisfied and, probably more than one of us thinking we would just pick a different text to preach on. But, there is something in here that I think is so important for us today. The call to tend to our light, in the metaphor of the lamps, in order to be prepared for the coming of the Kingdom of God. That is, by the way, what the parable is trying to get at. The bridegroom is the second coming of Christ, the completion of the God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The parable is a reminder that we must be prepared, in this case have enough oil to keep our lamps lit to welcome the bridegroom. And, if we are foolish, we will not get to experience the full wedding banquet, the celebration that will be the new heaven and the new earth, as the Kingdom of God is described in Revelation.
And the question that I find so compelling in this parable for today is this: “How do we tend to our light, so that it is not allowed to go out while we wait and work for the fulfillment of God’s promise?” Maybe put another way, what can we do that will ensure the spark of the divine that we carry within us will continue to burn so brightly that it keeps our spirits warm and shines upon all we encounter.
This is not necessarily an easy task. While I do not believe that divine spark within each of us can ever be extinguished, there is a lot in this world that will attempt to block it, or even absorb it. Hate, fear, greed, apathy, condescension – and the results of these things: violence, war, persecution – all of these things seek to block that light within us. But, I believe, there is much that we can do to keep that light shining brightly. Or, building on the metaphor in the parable – making sure the oil we need to keep the lamp lit never goes out.
What we are doing right now is one of them. Gathering in community, whether here in the sanctuary or joining online, is one of the best, and I think most important ways to keep our lamp oil reserves stocked. Being a part of a community like this, where you are allowed to simply ‘be’, be whatever you need to. In my five years here I have never once noticed a tendency to be performative – putting on a mask and a show for others benefit. Here you can just ‘be’ – and do so in the presence of love and reassurance of God’s grace.
It is also here that we can all tend to our spirituality – communal worship that includes prayers and singing and sacraments and meal sharing. But we all, I know, tend to our spirituality in other ways – gardening, art, going to or performing in theater, hiking, outings with family, reading. Our spirits are unique, as Victor Frankl emphasized, and how we tend to them is unique as well. You know what tends to your unique spirit – so, always, always make time for it. Not extra time, not recreational time – but time that is non-negotiable.
One of the other things we must do is to protect that light from what buffets it. There is a reason a lamp has a protective glass barrier around it – to keep the wind from effecting the flame. We too need to protect that divine light we each carry. To create boundaries that impedes harm. Whether that be personal or social boundaries, or perhaps boundaries around tasks and time – we need to make sure our light isn’t buffeted too much.
Which brings me to a final example of a way to tend to our light, that I believe must be done with intention and care. I do believe it is important that we are aware of what is happening in the world. By being mindful of it, it can give our prayers focus and our imaginations room to seek solutions. But, at the same time, we must be careful of how we expose ourselves to all that troubles the world. A constant news cycle, that is manipulated to heighten our emotions, not to mention social media that too often is used to bully – all of this can leave us feeling exposed and raw. I do believe we need to be aware, that our unique divine light feeds off this awareness, but we must also take care to not expose ourselves to that which wishes to overwhelm.
We each carry within us a divine light and we are, therefore, each responsible for tending to it. And how we do that is as unique as each of our spirits. I encourage each of you, especially with the busyness of the approaching season, compounded by a world filled with so much hurt and need, take time to consider how you tend to your light. How do you keep your lamp oil reserves full? How do you shine a light for others? And how do you honor the light you see in all those you encounter? Amen.
God of light – in the moment of creation you shone so brightly that it sparked life into being. As those created in your own image, we carry that spark within each of us. For that humbling and incredible gift, we give you great thanks. And it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, as the world attempts to block our light from shining, give us what we need to keep it burning brightly. Help us to find courage, hope, and resilience. Give us rest and comfort when we need it. And open our eyes to see the way your light shines through all we encounter – for this is the part of you which we all share.
One of the ways, God, we tend to your light within us is by opening our spirits to you in prayer. In these moments of silence we turn over to you the prayers we carry for ourselves and others…
Good and loving God, there is no where we can go that will hide us from your light. And there is nothing that can be done to snuff out that light within us. So, following the teachings of Jesus, we will tend to it, helping it to grow and grow. And so we pray in Jesus’ name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…