Text: Matthew 6: 22-23
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
In 2009 Heidi and I had the great privilege to travel to Italy and part of that trip included a day where we toured the city of Assisi. If that rings a bell for you, it is familiar because this is the city in Italy where St. Francis of Assisi was born, lived his entire life and died. In the city of Assisi is an ornate edifice to honor St. Francis called the Basilica of St. Francis and construction on this building began in 1228, so it has been around for a while.
The Basilica of St. Francis is unique in a very interesting way. It is the only church that I know of that houses another church within it. As the legend of St. Francis goes, at one point Francis believed he heard the voice of God telling him to build a church. He interpreted this voice literally, not metaphorically and proceeded to build a tiny chapel. I think it seats about 15 or maybe 18 people on the outside. This is the church that St. Francis actually built. It was very modest.
After St. Francis became a saint – which takes a while- it was decided that to honor him, a new, and much grander church should be erected. Rather than tear down the original church which St. Francis actually built, they simply enclosed it in the much larger, much grander, Basilica of St. Francis.
This being All Saints Sunday, I thought a little history around one of my favorite saints might be interesting. But there is a little more to the story.
While we were walking around the inside of the Basilica trying to take it all in, I overheard part of a conversation that was taking place between a small boy, who was maybe 5 or 6, and what I presumed to be his dad. At first the little boy was asking about all the paintings and the illustrations that were on the walls and ceilings of the Basilica and why they did that. The dad explained that most of the pictures told stories and it was easier for the people who came to church a long time ago to get stories that way because many of them could not read. It is like a big picture book the dad told his son. The boy seemed to understand this.
Then he looked up at these huge stained glass windows that were arranged in a pattern of three at the very front of the Basilica. The little boy noticed that the windows had pictures of people in them and he asked his dad who those people were in the windows. His dad responded that the people in the windows were saints. “What is a saint” the little boy asked.
While his father struggled to come up with an answer he thought his young son might be able to grasp, the little boy piped up again and said: “I know, saints are the people who the light shines through.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
The text I read a few minutes ago hints at this idea as well. If you remember, the text talks about how we can become full of light and if we are full of light, it is only natural to assume that some of that light leaks out and the light shines through us as well.
But there is another part of this text that I want to look at as well this morning. I’m not sure if you noticed it or not when I read through it the first time, but the part that talks about healthy eyes I think is very interesting. Let’s look at it again.
The second half of verse 22 and the first part of verse 23 reads: “if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”
What do you suppose the author intended us to take away from this concept of a healthy and unhealthy eyes? Certainly, we can’t take the verse literally, because I think there are lots of people with healthy eyes that are not necessarily full of light. Of course there are others, who could be blind, for example, a most radical form of unhealthy eyes, and still be full of light. So this idea of healthy and unhealthy eyes must be metaphor for something else. I think that something else may have something to do with how we see the world.
You might ask the question if someone has a healthy outlook on life or an unhealthy outlook on life as another way of saying they have healthy or unhealthy eyes. You might assume that healthy eyes translates into a relatively positive outlook, while unhealthy eyes might be more negative. You’ve heard all of these kinds of examples before, the glass is half-empty versus the glass being half-full, that sort of thing. One of the difficult issues around these broad generalities is that everyone interprets the ideas presented in different ways.
It reminds me of the young student who came home from school and told his parents he thought he failed his algebra test. “Why that’s negative” his father told him, you should be more positive. “OK,” the young man replied, “I’m positive I failed that algebra test.”
I’m looking for something a little deeper, something with a little more substance that we can relate to this idea of healthy and unhealthy eyes. I’m looking for a metaphor that I know is there, but might be a little more obscure than our first thought. It’s easy to say someone needs to have a healthy outlook on life or a more positive attitude, but what does that really mean and how does that impact our day to day lives? What does a life look like that has healthy eyes?
With that in mind, I want to go back once again to the text. The opening line in verse 22 says that the eye is the lamp of the body. Obviously a lamp gives light, so if the eye is like a lamp, then the eye acts as a collector and distributor of light. But there is one other thing about this metaphor that we need to pay attention to, in the historical context of this text, we are not talking about an electric lamp. The kind of lamp used in this metaphor would be an oil lamp and an oil lamp needs fuel.
What would happen to the light in the body if the lamp runs out of fuel? There would be darkness. Following this metaphor, the healthy eye is a lamp that has fuel, and an unhealthy eye is a lamp that has run out of fuel. It has no oil and so it has gone dark.
Now I want you to really think about this. So often when we talk about a positive attitude or a healthy outlook on life, it has become so passé that we just kind of brush it off. Everybody tries most of the time to be positive, everybody tries to be upbeat and look on the bright side of things, and everybody knows that a good attitude accomplishes more than a bad attitude. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I think this metaphor goes way beyond those superficial tenets of what we sometimes call positive thinking. I think this metaphor is talking about fuel.
The eye is the lamp for the body and that lamp needs fuel. How do you fill your lamp? What do you do every day to add fuel to your lamp? Without fuel, your lamp will go dark. If we are going to let the light shine through us, like the saints in the windows of the Basilica of St. Francis, then we need to be certain our lamps can burn for an extended period of time. We also need to be aware that lamps need to be refilled every so often. Unless you are making serious and intentional efforts to fill your lamps, eventually they will run dry. And when they run dry, there is darkness and as the text says, how great is that darkness.
So what does it look like to fill your lamp? For some, coming to church and singing hymns and participating in worship helps fill their lamp. For others it may be a walk in the woods or a weekend at the coast. I know that a good hike and the chance to shoot some photographs is one way I fill my lamp. Another lamp filling activity is meditation or prayer. For others it may be service opportunities like serving a meal at the Salvation Army or volunteering for Family Promise. It can be almost anything, but it must be something. Unless you have an intentional lamp-filling activity that you practice regularly, you will run out of fuel.
I think we have all experienced those times in our lives when the lamp runs dry and the darkness descends. Once it is dark it is even harder to finds ways to fill the lamp.
A healthy eye makes sure the lamp stays full of fuel. An unhealthy eye allows it to run dry.
And that is food, or perhaps, fuel, for thought.