Every once in a while, we turn on the Bluetooth sound bar by our television and link it to one of our cell phones and have a crazy dance party all through the house. The four children and I (and occasionally their mother, too) dance and sing and jump and run and laugh our way through some crazy music. Some of my favorite tunes are by They Might Be Giants, the alternative rock band that was formed in the 1980s and is best known for songs like "Istanbul" and "Particle Man." A few mornings ago (yes, this sometimes happens in the morning), we were jamming out to TMBG's "Birdhouse in Your Soul," and I suddenly realized what they were singing about: a nightlight.
The refrain says, "Blue canary in the outlet by the light switch / Who watches over you / Make a little birdhouse in your soul." That "blue canary" that is described elsewhere in the song as "a little glowing friend" is a child's nightlight. In one of the verses, the nightlight comically compares itself to a lighthouse, singing, "There's a picture opposite me / Of my primitive ancestry / Which stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck free / Though I respect that a lot / I'd be fired if that were my job / After killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts." I love how the little nightlight, whose bulb is designed to offer a dim glow, understands that its purpose is similar to that of the super-bright light house that keeps ships from hitting the rocks. Plus, the line about the "countless screaming Argonauts" is just hilarious.
In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:13-20), Jesus proclaims to his hearers, "You are the light of the world." That's a nice compliment, but Jesus isn't finished: "No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven." He's not just building them up. He's giving them work to do. They are a light, and it would be contrary to their identity and purpose to hide that light from others. That's his message to us. In him, God has made us the light of the world. We cannot switch that light off. We might try to hide it, but that would deny the light that has been given to us.
The optional end of Sunday's reading from Isaiah 58 is worth hearing. In verses 9b through 12, the prophet states, "If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday." That is what it means for our light to shine. What is that yoke we are to remove? We are to remove the oppressive burdens placed on those in our community. If a single-parent has to work two jobs to feed her family, that's too much. If an individual has to go to the emergency department to get primary care treatment, that's unjust. The prophet tells us to "offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted" without mentioning their race or immigration status or political affiliation. Do we want our light to rise in this gloomy darkness? Then we must stop pointing the finger of judgment and offer the hand of assistance.
Jesus tells us to let our light shine. That isn't an abstract instruction. He's not telling us to be nice. He's pointing us to the prophet's words. He's telling us to let the good news of transformative hope spread from us to our community--not by inviting the unchurched to know Jesus but by clothing and feeding and sheltering and welcoming and loving those who are without. If you doubt that, go read the rest of Matthew 5. Or maybe you've already forgotten the Beatitudes from last Sunday.
I doubt that TMBG had Matthew 5 in mind, but it's worth noting that at the end of the refrain they sing, "Make a little birdhouse in your soul." They encourage children to take the light with them. In the echo of the closing refrain, they sing, "And while you're at it / Keep the nightlight on inside the / Birdhouse in your soul." In other words, don't forget to let your light shine.