President’s speech: “Fireflies, Laser and Lamps: A Vocation in Lights”

Baccalaureate sermon, delivered by Dr. James E. Brenneman, President of Goshen College on Sunday, April 25, 2010 at the Goshen College Church-Chapel

As I was reflecting on today’s Baccalaureate, and the chosen theme having to do with the world of lighting, I thought it would be important to at least help each Goshen College graduate answer that age-old ubiquitous question asked of almost every college graduate, denomination, religious order or anyone else for that matter, a version of which is: “Just how many Goshen College graduates does it take to change a light bulb?”


Now, if we taught you anything, it seems to me you should leave here knowing how to answer at least that question: At Goshen College, however, we choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb, much less how to change it. However, if in your own journey, you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship to your light bulb and present it in your senior thesis provided a number of light bulb traditions will be explored, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-lived, and tinted; all of which are equally valid paths to a life of luminescence. Bottom line: whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. Come to think of it, you can be a light bulb, but if not, a turnip bulb, or a tulip bulb or any other bulb is fine with us. So, next time you’re asked, now you know.

The year was 1969, imagine that, and our meeting room was pitch black: black walls, black ceiling. We even painted the windows black. This of course, took some serious negotiations and well-laid plans to convince the church leaders to allow our longhaired, bell-bottomed, “groovy” youth group to do such a thing. I can’t even imagine whether pastors would allow this today. We laid multi-colored carpet pieces on the floor, built low seats all the way around the edge of the room and had big throw cushions scattered about. And most exotic of all were our infamous “black-lights.” On one wall was the striking figure of a shrouded face finger pointing in an Uncle Sam pose with the words, “Jesus Wants You.”

But that message quickly disappeared when the black lights were turned on — and there on the opposite wall, the rainbow-like poster stated the fluorescent truth to us: “You are the light of the world!”

Now, I’m not sure, Jesus himself on the mountain, when he spoke his words, could have made those words stick in my mind as distinctly as did that striking poster in a darkened room. No commands, no should be’s, or oughtabes, no lectures about doing right, no how-to-laws about being a good witness; simply a statement of fact: “You are the light of the world.”

What an audacious, awe-inspiring vision for what it means to be entering into life beyond your diplomas: You are the light of the world!

You are the light of the world! There’s something about knowing who we are as declared so by Christ himself that can become one of the most liberating truths guiding our destinies wherever they take us. One of the great goals of almost any developmental theory, psychological quest, or religious aim begins with the discovery of knowing who we are, knowing our own identities. Who am I? Closely followed by “what is my mission, my purpose, my calling in life.” Those of you graduating may feel those questions tugging at your mind and heart sleeves even now at the end of this phase of your life.

I love the image that Jesus paints for his disciples back then and paints for us today. “You are the light of the world.” Period. Let’s not kill a great metaphor with a thousand qualifications; all the ways we know we are not “lights” or “couldn’t ever be lights” or “lesser lights in a relative bright context” and so on and so forth.
There are enough darkened and shadowed and sorrowful and hurting places in the world, and within each and every one of us, to know that the world needs you, the world needs us. We need more light among us.

When Jesus says, you are the light of the world, let’s accept what he says of you and me and all who wish to emulate or follow him in life. You are the light of the world. Those are the facts as Jesus sees them!

The beauty in this metaphor lies in the awareness that not all light sources are the same, but all bear a measure of radiant energy according to their calling.

You are the firefly darting in the night, giving pleasure to countless kids around the world chasing after you on summer evenings with their insect jars. You are the laser beam providing sight to a cataract victim who longs to see again. You are the candle shining in that home whose electricity was downed by a tornado or quake. You are the lamp in a Bedouin tent giving light to a young reader. You the lighthouse on a barrier reef in a blinding storm, a beacon of hope for a wave-tossed vessel. You are the flashlight pointing out rocks and roots on a rugged mountain precipice. You are in lights on Broadway acting, writing, directing a play that enlightens the hearts and minds the world over. You are the infrared photon radiating communication from coast to coast and from star to star. You are the moon reflecting still greater lights. You are the light of the world. You are the lights of the world.

The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians (5:8) reminds us that all of us, every single human creature, was born in darkness. We are creatures of dust, of clay, of flesh, and of bones. And, of course, we know that, we sense that, we too often live out those limits of our own sorrow and shame. Nevertheless and notwithstanding, in Christ, In Christ! The Apostle Paul says, we have become “children of light.” God planted within each of us spiritual DNA, a particle of light, a sliver of heaven that awaits its destiny as God’s child of light.

We are an energy source, a center of hope, a means of illuminating darkness (of all kinds) in a hurting world. Jesus simply declared it so. The question for us today and every day is one of belief: Do I believe, do you believe that Jesus meant what he said about me, about you?

When he said, “You are a light of the world,” believing that may be the toughest hurdle you and I need to make in deciding our destinies. By God’s grace, and a declarative statement of Christ, we are “children of light,” and “a light to the world.”

If we truly accept such a vocation by faith, if we truly believe we are “children of light,” I’m guessing we would worry less about what the exact nature of our responsibilities to and for the world might be, what our profession might be. I love the Gospel writer John’s account of the Last Supper when, almost in passing, he writes, “Knowing who he was, Jesus took off his outer garment and took a towel and washed his disciples feet.” It’s a wonderful image. It’s an image of self-identity. Knowing who he was allowed him to be the servant leader, to wash his disciples feet, to die a sacrificial death for our sisters and brothers.

The great temptations you will face, the ones we all face, will be the temptation to stay hidden in darkness, to avoid our calling to be light, to stick with the old tired, but familiar ways of doing things, to hide under the bushel of our past habits and limitations. God invites us, rather, to live in the light, to become the lights of our true calling. It will, no doubt, be a vulnerable place to reside — on a lamp stand, out from under the bushel basket — a place where others can see us for who we truly are. But, light’s first task is to dispel the darkness, including our own.

Jesus, “the dawn’s first light,” shone love upon his enemies, kindness to the unkind, mercy upon the undeserving. In return, the gospel writer John says, though he was the light that shone in darkness, “the darkness did not understand it.” (1:5) It may not be that as ambassadors of light you will necessarily be understood. But, I believe, the world will be a bit brighter tomorrow than it is today, because you are shining in it.

Light is not loud. It doesn’t say a word. It doesn’t persuade by fancy methods or far-off promises, it simply and quietly shines on the true path while exposing the darkness for the sham that it is. Its witness is silent, but effective. Light can expose more truth and provide more meaning in one piercing ray, than in a whole barrage of holy sounding words or pious lectures or verbal rants or acts of belligerence or unkindness. Being light is simply being a person whose life shines forth the hope, grace, truth, forgiveness, and love the world so desperately needs.

In conclusion then, the lighted lamp in the Goshen College seal represents the light of learning that in its shining, “pushes back the darkness” of the world. Each of you represents one of nearly 19,000 other living Goshen College alumni, points of light, shining on every inhabitable continent on earth and now in uninhabitable continents. So, join them, join us, and Shine forth, graduates! Shine forth! May your light so shine that others will see who you are and all you do as a gift and a glory to God, the source of the true Light of the whole world. Shine forth! Amen.