Poem for a Tuesday — “Sorrow Song” by Lucille Clifton
for the eyes of the children, the last to melt, the last to vaporize, for the lingering eyes of the children, staring, the eyes of the children of buchenwald, of viet nam and johannesburg, for the eyes of the children of nagasaki, for the eyes of the children of middle passage, for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes, russian eyes, american eyes, for all that remains of the children, their eyes, staring at us, amazed to see the extraordinary evil in ordinary men.
in Blessing the Boats, Rochester: BOA Editions, 2000, p. 39.
Lucille Clifton grew up in Buffalo, before attending Howard University and SUNY Fredonia. Her spare poems capture human experience in deeply revelatory ways, with hopeful focus on the enduring strength of the African American experience and family life. She wrote ten books of poetry and seventeen books for children, racking up a number of honors and awards, including the National Book Award for Blessing the Boats. Clifton was the Maryland Poet Laureate from 1974-1985 and served as the Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College in Columbia, Maryland. Asked once how she wished to be remembered, Clifton said, “I would like to be seen as a woman whose roots go back to Africa, who tried to honor being human. My inclination is to try to help.”
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Put to the Test” Matthew 4:1-11
It had seemed like the natural thing to do. After all, Moses had spent forty days and nights fasting on the mountain of God before he had returned with the stone tablets of the ten commandments. Elijah had humbled himself for forty days in the wilderness after battling the prophets of Baal. He had come away with a new vision for his prophetic work. If it had been right for Moses and Elijah, why not him? No sooner had God’s voice stopped ringing from the heavens above the waters of his baptism, than he felt it—the tug of the Spirit, leading him away from the Jordan’s banks and guiding him high into the hills of the Judean desert.
It hadn’t been easy. The sun was brutal, and even though the grotto was sheltered, the days were far hotter there than in the Galilee, and the nights were surprisingly cold. Some days, the wind blew in from the Transjordan with the harsh whirl of stinging sand. There were snakes and scorpions. One night, jackals howled nearby, dreaming of an easy meal. He saw a sand cat, warily trotting with belly low and enormous ears swiveling for sounds of threat. She paused and blinked at him with amber eyes, a dead lizard dangling from her mouth. “Have you brought me a gift?” he asked before she scuttled away to a hidden den.
He wasn’t sure when he first realized that he was not truly alone. The first temptation seemed so innocuous. “Jesus, I’m famished. When was the last time we ate, anyway? Don’t you need a little something to renew your strength and reinvigorate your prayers? Even the Israelites found a little manna in the desert. Why not turn this stone to bread and relieve our hunger?”
His stomach growled at the suggestion. It would be easy. Anyone who would one day turn five loaves and two fish into a feast for thousands could certainly whip up a tasty treat for two from a stone. Who would know anyway?
But then he thought about his ancestors: the Israelites in Sinai nourished with bread from heaven; Elijah under the broom tree, fed by an angel; Moses on the mountaintop, sustained by God only knows what. He sighed. If there were to be an end to his fast there in the wilderness, it would be up to God and not the rumbling of his belly or the wiles of the Adversary.
The answer to the question, when he found it, came from the Torah, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He suspected that it would not be the last time that he would be hungry, but he trusted that God would provide. He returned to his prayers.
It didn’t stop. In a dizzy disorienting whirl of color and light, he found that, although he was still way up high, the wilderness was far behind. He looked out over a busy city. A crowded labyrinth of streets marched down a hill, crammed with shops and vendors and pedestrians. A haze of dust and the smoke of cooking fires hung upon the air. On one side, a steep valley fell away to a deep wadi, water-filled and gleaming. Below him were giant flagstones, marble columns, and people, many, many people: pilgrims in travel-worn cloaks, proud scribes in fine robes, threadbare beggars crying out for alms, lordly priests with bejeweled breastplates.
He sat down with a thump, his legs dangling over the edge of the parapet, knowing exactly where he was. He had been dedicated here at 8 days old, the priest wielding a small, sharp, curved knife to mark him as a child of Abraham. He had camped out here when he was only twelve, sitting among the teachers for days, filled with questions and an eagerness to learn and teach. Year after year, he had made pilgrimage here, to remember the Passover, to pay the tax, to offer an acceptable sacrifice. Jesus was in his Father’s House, the Temple in Jerusalem. He had just never seen it from this vantage before, from the very pinnacle.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” his companion asked with sincere admiration. “You are the Messiah, God’s beloved one. All this is yours by right. Let’s get the party started. Reveal yourself right now in power and glory. Let’s humble those scribes and priests. Let’s liberate those people. Let’s heal those beggars. Let’s clean house. Step out and claim your rightful place. You know what the Psalmist said, ‘God will lift you up.’”
Jesus thought. Below him in the court of the Gentiles, he heard the shouts of moneylenders and the cries of animals to be sacrificed. A display of holy power and protection here and now would do more to affirm his identity as the Messiah than years of preaching and teaching and healing in the hinterlands. Why not put these arrogant priests and self-centered scribes in their places? Why not claim what was rightfully his and restore righteousness to the Father’s House? He could see it.
But as Jesus looked out over Jerusalem’s narrow streets, he remembered the story of his forefather David. The King of Israel, sweat-soaked, half-naked, and exhausted, had sung and danced before the Lord with all his might, bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to the holy city, limping and leaping before God and all the people. Surely, the way of the Messiah was like that, one of complete devotion and absolute humility, not power and pride. The way of God’s Son would be to do God’s bidding and not the other way around. “No,” Jesus answered with a rueful shake of his head, “I’ll not put God to the test.” He bowed his head and closed his eyes.
It wasn’t over. “Come with me,” his Adversary invited. They were back in the wilderness where his companion was leaning in the shade at the mouth of the grotto. With a quick upward jerk of his chin, he pointed to the trail that threaded up the hillside to the very top of the mountain. Jesus rose on wobbly legs, stepped out, and stood blinking in the harsh sun. The air was clear and super-heated, rippling out at the brim of the world. The stones were hot beneath his sandals. ‘Let’s climb,” his friend smiled. Together they threaded their way to the summit, where a broad flat boulder waited like a throne. With a bow and a sweep of his arm, his companion invited him to climb on high. He did.
Jesus caught his breath and took in the world around him. In the distance, the Jordan was a muddy snake winding across the landscape, cutting a narrow green swath through the valley. Clouds on the far western horizon hinted at the presence of the great sea, where the merchants sailed and Leviathan swam. To the north, he caught sight of the silver-blue Sea of Galilee, harp-shaped, nestled beneath the Golan Heights. Far beyond that, the mountains of Lebanon rose with their snow-covered caps glinting in the midday sun. To the south, the salt wastes stepped down to the Dead Sea. Beyond that, yawned the Sinai desert, its saw-toothed peaks and barren sands stretching all the way to Africa. Jesus drank deep the desert air and looked with awe at his Father’s world.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” It was his companion, at his elbow now. “But there is so much grief and poverty, hunger and heartlessness out there. And the Romans, ugh. Why not make it yours? Why not change the way things are? Free the captives, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, heal the sick. It is all yours for the taking. All that is required is just one small thing: a little bending of the knees, the slightest bowing of the head, a few prayers, a little incense burned. Worship me. What are we waiting for?”
Jesus looked out over the beautiful broken world at his feet. He thought about the hurting people he had seen everywhere—hungry, fearful, dirt poor, ground down. What was he waiting for? Why not rise to his friend’s charge and set things straight? Couldn’t the end justify the means?
But as Jesus looked over the Promised Land, gleaming like a green and tan jewel, he remembered that God alone had the power to create this world. God alone had the authority to give this land as a blessing to the people. God alone would be the architect of its salvation, and God alone would determine that path. Whatever it might be.
Unbidden, the words of Moses were on his tongue, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” With an uneasy sense of hard things yet to come, Jesus waved off his tempter. “Enough. Away with you. Get behind me.”
Jesus stood strong in the noonday sun on the summit, his shadow so small that it flitted out only as the wind surged through his linen robe. The sand cat crouched in the shade of a boulder, dozing in the heat with whiskers twitching. Jesus felt clear as the five springs at Jericho, bubbling up from the depths below the sand. He felt empty and open as new amphorae, awaiting the first pressing of the finest grapes from the new harvest. He felt like Moses astride Sinai with two stone tablets. He felt like Elijah stalking off to trouble the Northern Kingdom. He felt ready for what would come.
Audrey West. “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 10, 2008. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
David Lose. “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11” in Preaching This Week, March 13, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Judith James. “Commentary on Matthew 4:1-11” in Preaching This Week, March 9, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Throughout Lent, I’ll be sharing a weekly devotion that draws on my travels to the middle east. Here is the first.
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. After He had fasted 40 days and 40 nights, He was hungry. Then the tempter approached Him.”—Matthew 4:1-3a
From the edge of the ancient oasis of Jericho in the West Bank, you can see the Mount of Temptation in the distance. A Greek Orthodox monastery at the top marks the spot where Jesus fasted and prayed following his baptism. If you have the time, you can ride a cable car to the top, swaying in the hot sun above the Judean Desert. Within the monastery’s walls, you can visit the grotto where tradition maintains that Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread. At the south summit of the monastery, now inside a chapel, is a stone where Jesus sat as Satan offered him all the kingdoms of the world, if only Jesus would turn away from God and worship him.
From the summit, the spectacular view takes in the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and the mountains of Moab and Gilead in Jordan. It’s a harsh and hostile landscape. Beyond the oasis of Jericho, it’s all red rocks, sand, dust, scrubby vegetation, and nary a spring in sight. For an Adirondacker from this land of abundant waters, it’s tough to imagine an overnight camp-out there, let alone forty days and nights of prayer and deprivation.
It’s when we are in “the wilderness,” far from what is familiar and comfortable—when we are feeling stretched thin, inadequately supported, and vulnerable—that the diabolical voice of temptation speaks up. Temptation may sound like the critical voice that sabotages our best efforts—telling us we are not good enough, smart enough, or skilled enough to meet the challenge. Temptation may invite us to walk the easy path, doing what is expedient and convenient rather than taking the time to discern and do what is right. Temptation can be insidious, like the desire to put work, civic commitment, friends, or family before our love for God.
Jesus met temptation head-on with the sword of scripture. He rebuked the Devil’s three temptations with three deftly chosen readings. If only we had been paying better attention in Sunday School when the teachers were handing out those memory verses! While we may not be the Bible scholar that Jesus was, that diabolical voice is silenced in our understanding that we are not alone in the wilderness, for God so loved the world that he sent us Jesus, who promises to be with us, “even unto the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b).
Take heart, my friends. The season of Lent may confront us with the reality of temptation and our struggle to resist, but it also reminds us that we are not alone. Our success record with temptation may not be the best, but the Lord has got it covered. May we observe a holy Lent.
Question for reflection: How do you need Jesus’s help today?
Please join me in prayer . . .
Merciful God, we give thanks for your Son Jesus, sent into this world as a sign of your great love for us. Silence within us any voice but your own, that we may move past temptation and doubt to serve you with the fullness of who we are, to the glory of your coming Kingdom. We pray through Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Temptation is the devil looking through the keyhole. Yielding is opening the door and inviting him in.”—Billy Sunday
“We usually know what we can do, but temptation shows us who we are.”—Thomas a Kempis
“The essence of temptation is the invitation to live independently of God.”—Neil T. Anderson
Poem for a Tuesday — “Nat Tuner in the Clearing” by Alvin Aubert
But warm still from the fire that cheered us, Lighted us in this clearing where it seems Scarcely an hour ago we feasted on Burnt pig from our tormentors’ unwilling Bounty and charted the high purpose your Word had launched us on, And now, my comrades Dead, or taken; your servant, pressed by the Bloody yelps of hounds, forsaken, save for The stillness of the word that persists quivering And breath-moist on his tongue; and these faint coals Soon to be rushed to dying glow by the Indifferent winds of miscarriage-What now, My Lord? A priestess once, they say, could write On leaves, unlock the time-bound spell of deeds Undone. I let fall upon these pale remains Your breath-moist word, preempt the winds, and give Them now their one last glow, that some dark child In time to come might pass this way and, in This clearing, read and know….
In Furious Flower. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004, p. 46.
Alvin Aubert was a scholar, poet, and editor, shaped by the African American culture and rural life of his childhood along the Mississippi River. He left school early to work, joined the Army, and earned his GED. After his service, Aubert returned to school, earning a Master’s degree from the University of Michigan, where he was a Woodrow Wilson National Fellow. His writing was strongly influenced by the blues tradition. In addition to his six books of poetry, Aubert was a gifted educator. He taught at Southern University, SUNY Fredonia, and Wayne State University. He founded and edited the award-winning journal Obsidian, noted for publishing works in English by writers of African descent worldwide. “Nat Turner in the Clearing,” written about the 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, was Aubert’s first published poem. On a hot summer day in his office at Southern University, Aubert had just finished reading “The Confession of Nat Turner” when he felt the presence of Turner there in the room with him. He picked up the pen and began to write, casting the poem in the form of a prayer.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Be the Light” Matthew 17:1-9
Followers of Jesus have been debating the meaning of his Transfiguration for almost 2,000 years.
Within our Protestant Reformed tradition, the Transfiguration is celebrated on this last Sunday before the season of Lent. Transfiguration closes out the season that begins with those post-Christmas Sundays: Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord. The Magi followed that brilliant star to find the newborn king. God proclaimed from the heavens at Jesus’s baptism that he is God’s beloved Son. It’s entirely fitting, as we enter the Lenten valley, that there should be a mountaintop moment, the Transfiguration, to remind us that the heavenly light shines in Jesus, the Beloved Son whom we should be listening to.
Our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions won’t be celebrating Christ’s Transfiguration until August sixth. That’s when they observe the feast day, deep in the heart of those long weeks of Ordinary Time that stretch from Pentecost to Christ the King Sunday. Once upon a time, no one agreed when the Transfiguration should be observed. In the tenth century, it was celebrated in France and England on July 27th, in Saxony on March 17th, and at Halberstadt on September 3rd. Finally, in 1456 Pope Callixtus III established the date of the Transfiguration for the universal church on August 6th, in memory of the victory won over the invading Turks at Belgrade.
Even modern-day Bible scholars disagree about the Transfiguration. An influential block of twentieth century experts, including Rudolf Bultmann, argued that when Matthew, Mark, and Luke were writing their gospels, they got the date wrong. These scholars say that the Transfiguration is actually a resurrection experience. It belongs at the end of the synoptic gospels when they imagined it more likely that the risen Lord would appear to his inner circle of disciples and grant them a vision of his glorified resurrection body that would soon be permanently communing with Moses and Elijah in that far brighter light on that far better shore.
Just reading the Transfiguration story confronts us with the fact that, at the time, even the disciples didn’t know what to make of their experience. That most trusted of disciples Peter was definitely clueless. Confounded by all that holiness, Peter wanted to pitch some tents. We’re still not sure whether the dwellings were meant to be an act of hospitality, a plan to preserve the moment, or just an uncomfortable effort to do and say something to relieve the mystery and stress of an experience that he really couldn’t wrap his head around.
If the disciples and the Bible scholars and the major branches of world Christianity can’t agree on the date, significance, and timing of the Transfiguration, then what hope is there for us? Help us, Jesus!
David Lose is a Lutheran pastor and former president of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. When David teaches about the Transfiguration, he likes to call attention to what followed the dazzling, numinous, incomprehensible moment of enlightenment on the mountaintop when God spoke from the heavens, telling Peter to pipe down and listen up to the Beloved Son. Suddenly, the light was gone, the disciples had fallen on their faces in fear, and Jesus was still there, looking like he usually does. The Lord went to the disciples. He touched them. He comforted them. Then, he set their feet on the path that would take them back down the mountain and into the valley where the world waited, in desperate need of love and light.
In Jesus, God chose to enter the world with love and light. Instead of dwelling on the mountain in glorious mystery with holy conversation partners like Moses and Elijah, Jesus chose the disciples. Jesus chose to be in the midst of trouble with followers who often felt confused, who didn’t always know the right thing to say or do. Jesus would be with them to help and to heal, whether he looked glorified or not. The Transfiguration offers a promise of accompaniment and presence. That promise would later be confirmed at the close of Matthew’s gospel when the risen Lord stood with his disciples atop another Galilean mountain. As Jesus prepared to ascend to his Father—and his friends Moses and Elijah—Jesus again reminded his frightened followers that he would always be with them, even to the end of the age.
Years later, as Peter neared the end of his life, he wrote to the early church and described his memory of the Transfiguration as “a lamp shining in a dismal place.” Through years of witness and ministry that would take Peter from the Galilee to the heart of the empire in Rome, his experience of the Lord’s Transfiguration would stand as a holy reminder of the presence and power of Jesus. Peter would trust that amid the fear and darkness of his world, Jesus would always reach out to frightened disciples with light and life, sustaining the church until the Kingdom would come, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts (2 Peter 1:17).
John, too, when he wrote his gospel, would hold fast to that memory of light. In the glorious opening verses of his gospel, John would remember the Transfiguration, writing, “The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed his glory, the glory as of the ‘one and only Son’ of the Father.” John trusted in the promise of the Transfiguration: that the light continues to shine in the world’s darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1).
Perhaps the question that we should be asking on Transfiguration Sunday isn’t, “What does all that numinous holiness mean?” Perhaps the better question that we should be asking ourselves is, “How am I called to live in response to the transfigured Lord who has chosen to be with me in all my fear and limitation in the midst of this dark world?”
The late Archbishop Joseph Raya of the ancient Greek Melkite Church taught that the Transfiguration is a call for disciples to be the light amid the world’s darkness. Raya said, “Transfiguration is not simply an event out of the two-thousand-year-old past, or a future yet to come. It is rather a reality of the present, a way of life available to those who seek and accept Christ’s nearness. We can live lives transfigured by the nearness of Jesus, and we can go forth to transfigure our world.”
Joseph Raya would spend a lifetime being the light of Christ and getting into “good trouble.” Born to a Christian family in Lebanon in 1916, he was ordained in 1941 in the midst of the chaos of the second World War. He taught in Cairo until 1948 when he was expelled from Egypt for advocating for the rights of women. Raya believed women should have the right to receive an education and generally defended the dignity of women. Raya advised an Arab woman to slap the face of any man who made inappropriate sexual advances toward her, no matter the man’s rank. When the deserved slap was delivered to King Farouk, Father Raya was given twenty-four hours to leave the country.
The following year, Raya emigrated to the United States. In 1952, he was appointed pastor of the Melkite Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where he befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. The two marched together across Alabama, including the March on Selma. This made him a target for the KKK. On one occasion, Raya was dragged from his home in the church’s rectory and badly beaten by three clansmen, who taunted him with the name “Nigger Lover.” Raya responded, “Yes, I am, and I love you too.” His witness of love toward all people caused one of the men who beat him to call and beg his forgiveness 35 years later.
In 1968, Raya returned to the Middle East when he was appointed the Melkite Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all Galilee. There he continued to be light, working for reconciliation between Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze. He brought along his gifts for non-violent direct action, organizing marches and sit-ins, and engaging in a highly publicized hunger strike to advocate for the return of Palestinian refugees to their Galilee homes.
President Carter awarded Joseph Raya the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Raya was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. When the Archbishop died in 2005 at the age of 89, Coretta Scott King wrote of him, “At a time when the nation’s most prominent clergy were silent, Archbishop [Raya] courageously supported our Freedom Movement and marched with my husband. Throughout his life, he continued to support the nonviolent movement against poverty, racism, and violence.”
On this Transfiguration Sunday, as we are again dazzled by that holy vision of the glorified Jesus on the mountaintop, may we remember that the Lord is with us still. He reaches out to us in our fear and confusion and reminds us that there is work to be done. May we go forth to be the light, transfiguring our world, one simple act of kindness and justice at a time.
Ronald J. Allen. “Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 19, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 23, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became bright as light. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[b] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they raised their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Poem for a Tuesday — “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street” by Ross Gay
Maybe, since you’re something like me, you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic for gawking at the clutch between the two men on Broad Street, in front of the hospital, which would not stop, each man’s face so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through that first, porous layer of the body into the heat beneath; maybe you, too, would’ve nearly driven over three pedestrians
as your head swiveled to lock on their lock, their burly fingers squeezing the air from the angels on the backs of their denim jackets which reminds you the million and one secrets exchanged in nearly the last clasp between your father and his brother, during which the hospital’s chatter and rattle somehow fell silent in deference to the untranslatable song between them, and just as that clasp endured through what felt like the gradual lengthening of shadows and the emergence of once cocooned things, and continues to this day, so, too, did I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked at their ceaseless cleave going deeper, and deeper still, so that Broad Street from Fairmount to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men, sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar, yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth
like sun-colored spittle, the steel vehicle now a lost memory as I joined the fire-breasted birds in listening to air exchanged between these two men, who are, themselves, listening, forever, to the muscled contours of the other’s neck, all of us still, and listening, as if we had nothing to blow up, as if we had nothing to kill.
in The American Poetry Review, vol. 35, no. 5. Accessed online at aprweb.org.
Poet, professor, and essayist Ross Gay is all about joy. His four books of poetry include Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays – The Book of Delights – was a New York Times bestseller. His current work Inciting Joy is a Publisher’s Weekly best book of 2022. Editor John Freeman says Ross’s work, “throws off so much light, I’ve often wondered if it was powered by a superior energy source.” Ross Gay teaches at Indiana University, where he gives out lots of “A” grades and invites students to wonder with him.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Beyond the Letter of the Law” Matt. 5:21-26
It can prompt the silent treatment or explode into domestic violence. It can extinguish passion, put an end to love, stifle dreams, break our hearts, and end a marriage.
It can divide our families, pit brother against brother, disconnect parent from child, unfold into long years of puzzling, hurtful, and bleak estrangement.
It can turn us against our neighbor, inspire us to trade insults and trash talk, ignite a feud, make us feel unsafe in our homes, and create animosity on the block.
It can make us hate our jobs, kindle disrespect for the boss or colleague, cause us to procrastinate or miss deadlines, lash out in water cooler gossip, and even get us fired.
It can divide our churches into factions, convince us that we are holier or more righteous than others. It can splinter us into schisms that vote with their feet and head for the door.
It can ruin your health, pump cortisol and adrenaline into your system, spike your blood pressure, flood your stomach with acid, attack your heart, consume your mind with obsessive thoughts, or turn inward to self-harm and abuse—cutting, disordered eating, even suicide.
I’m talking about anger.
In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount with a series of antitheses, teachings which radicalize the commandments of the Torah and reveal God’s intent for our lives in community. Jesus begins with anger. He takes the commandment, “You shall not kill,” which prohibits the taking of human life (Exodus 20:13; Deut. 5:17), and he goes deeper, exploring the power of our anger, not only to take life but to divide families, undermine relationships, and mar our communities. From everyday insults to slander to frivolous lawsuits that pursue a selfish agenda, Jesus saw anger at work in destructive ways that wounded spirits and brought death to relationships.
Jesus used the exaggerated rhetoric of hyperbole to impress upon his friends that they could not be in right relationship with God if they were not in right relationship with one another. Jesus described a worshiper bringing an offering to God. In the first century, offerings were presented in the Temple. The offering was the culmination of a multi-day pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem. Then, a ritual of purification was undertaken, the Temple was entered, and a sacrifice was purchased from the vendors. But just as the priest prepared to kill the animal or burn the grain, Jesus’s worshipper remembered his angry estrangement from a brother or sister, jumped up, rushed out of the Temple, and made the three-day return trip to Galilee to make things right. Then, the worshiper returned to Jerusalem and dedicated his offering to God. It’s a powerful statement of the fact that we cannot love God without loving our neighbor.
To further emphasize his point, Jesus next described neighbors embroiled in a lawsuit. Their refusal to settle on the way to court and make things right, even when given ample opportunity, set them on a self-destructive path. Harbored anger and antipathy become a prison. Trapped within the walls of our rage, judgment, and alienation, we can idle away the years until we get over ourselves and make things right. Woe to us when we choose our wounded pride and angry outrage above reconciling with others—and reconciling with God.
Don’t get me—or Jesus—wrong. Anger is part of how God has made us. Anger has its time and place. Anger can motivate us to get out of a difficult or dangerous situation. Anger can inspire us to change and grow. Anger can prompt us to find a prophetic voice that speaks out against the sins of society, from gender oppression to racial hate to economic injustice. Jesus got plenty mad. He denounced religious leaders who prized holiness over love and mercy. He decried the corruption of the Temple by turning over the moneychangers’ tables. But we also must acknowledge that anger can be an unholy and destructive force. Indeed, the frightened and vengeful anger of powerful opponents sent Jesus to the cross.
We all struggle with anger. Some of us grew up in families where anger wasn’t expressed in healthy or constructive ways. Anger meant that someone got hit or verbally abused or humiliated. Anger meant the silent treatment and being made to feel like an outsider in our own home. For others among us, we weren’t allowed to express anger. It wasn’t ladylike or it might hurt someone’s feelings, or it wasn’t nice. We don’t know what to do with anger—so it explodes in hurtful ways or gets swallowed in fear and shame. Learning to manage our anger may put us face to face with old feelings of hurt, vulnerability, and powerlessness. We may find it easier to disconnect and walk away than to work things through. Unresolved anger can have painful consequences; our lives can be littered with broken relationships and hurting hearts.
But Jesus holds out hope that his disciples can do better. We can make different choices with our anger. We can find healing. We find the wherewithal to manage our anger when we consider the reconciling work of Jesus. If the cross teaches us anything, it is that God would sooner face death than be alienated and separated from us. The resurrection overcomes the world’s violence and anger. Think about it. On Easter evening, the risen Lord sought out the disciples who had betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. Jesus came to them not with anger or harsh recrimination, but with love. His first word to them was “Peace.” And he sent them forth not to punish or enact retributive violence on those who had condemned him to death and prosecuted his execution, but to forgive and to love. Our efforts to move past anger find inspiration and possibility when we remember the Lord’s example and we trust that he is with us, calling us always to the work of reconciliation.
We can begin to change our relationship with anger and heal the angry hurts that trouble us by simply paying attention. Sometimes we walk around with an angry chip on our shoulder, taking our feelings out on the world around us. Take time to notice what you are feeling and what has prompted those feelings to stir within you. Keeping a daily journal can help you grow in your ability to notice and reflect, and so can having a close conversation partner with whom you can share, whether it is a friend or a spouse. As we become more aware of what we are feeling and how it shapes our actions, we find the emotional space to make different choices instead of allowing our anger to drive the bus.
Despite our best intentions, there will be times when we find ourselves in the middle of an encounter that gets our blood boiling. Our spouse will forget our birthday. A teacher may hurt our child’s feelings. Our best effort in the workplace will get scrubbed by the boss. Take a deep breath and remember the simple wisdom of counting to ten. That moment of reflective awareness grants us control over our breath and our body— and can help to deescalate the tension. If we find we are still itching for a fight or inclined to say things we will surely regret, we can take a step back. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m really angry right now. Let’s take a beat and come back together when we can have a productive conversation.” Then, follow through on that—sooner rather than later. The Apostle Paul advised that we shouldn’t let the sun go down on our anger. Work it through and move on.
What about those old angers and hurts that we all harbor, the broken relationships, the estranged siblings, the lost friends? Is it too late to make a fresh start? Jesus was the master of second chances. He might remind us that we have nothing to lose, other than our anger, sadness, and grief. Pray about it and see how the Lord may be leading you to make amends or build a bridge. Pick up the phone and make contact. Have a heart to heart over a cup of coffee. Send an email or reach out through social media. It can be as simple as saying, “I miss you. I regret the hard words and the hurt feelings. Let’s try again.” If we feel truly trapped and overwhelmed by our anger, we may need the support of a trusted counselor or pastor. We don’t have to face it alone.
I suspect that as we learn to manage our anger, we’ll feel better. We’ll be a lot less likely to kill someone. Our relationships will be healthier and find a new sense of strength and intimacy that forges a lasting bond. We’ll be closer to others, even as we are closer to God. May it be so.
Amy Oden. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 13, 2011. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 12, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Carla Works. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 16, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Eric Barreto. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 16, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
Melanie Howard. “Commentary on Matthew 5:21-36” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 12, 2023. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
for Black History Month, I’ll be featuring the work of some of my favorite African American poets. We begin with the sublime
— Tracy K. Smith —
Does God love gold?
Does He shine back
At Himself from walls
Like these, leafed
In the earth’s softest wealth?
Women light candles,
Pray into their fistful of beads.
Cameras spit human light
Into the vast holy dark,
And what glistens back
Is high up and cold. I feel
Man here. The same wish
That named the planets.
Man with his shoes and tools,
His insistence to prove we exist
Just like God, in the large
And the small, the great
And the frayed. In the chords
That rise from the tall brass pipes,
And the chorus of crushed cans
Someone drags over cobbles
In the secular street.
from Life on Mars, Minneapolis: Grey Wolf Press, 2011
Tracy K. Smith
is an American author, poet, and educator. She grew up in Northern California, where she began writing poetry at an early age, encouraged by her mother, a teacher, and her father, an aerospace engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. After completing an MFA at Columbia University, Tracy was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. She teaches at Princeton, where she chairs the Lewis Center for the Arts. She has written four volumes of poetry, including Life on Mars, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Her book Ordinary Light: A Memoir, about race, faith, and the dawning of her poetic vocation, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015. Elizabeth Alexander has written of Tracy Smith, “Her poems are mysterious but utterly lucid and write a history that is sub-rosa yet fully within her vision. They are deeply satisfying and necessarily inconclusive. And they are pristinely beautiful without ever being precious.” Tracy Smith is currently writing two operas.
Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Let Your Light Shine” Matt. 5:13-16
Ever since Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879, our nights have gotten a lot brighter, so much so that if you live on the eastern seaboard or are near a big city, you may never catch a glimpse of the Milky Way or witness a meteor shower. On our last trip to Acadia, Duane and I attended a presentation on Dark Sky Parks. These are places that have been specially certified for their exceptional starry nights and nocturnal environment. Park lighting must be shielded and feature energy-efficient amber bulbs. Trails are unlit, so bring your headlamp. Even roadways and signs are minimally lighted, relying on reflective paint and your car’s headlights to show you the way. Dark Sky areas have a light curfew – no outside lights from 10PM until an hour before dawn. That goes for your home and your camper.
They may not be official, but we are blessed with some dark sky areas here in the Adirondacks, like the Adirondack Sky Center on Big Wolf Road in Tupper Lake, where you can explore the night sky on second and fourth Friday nights for much of the year. When I moved to Saranac Lake from the Chicago area 18 years ago, I was shocked by the darkness of the night, so deep that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face inside the tiny cottage that I shared with my sheltie on Lake Flower. I bought nightlights, which helped until I became accustomed to the darkness.
Unless they live in a place like the Adirondacks or a Dark Sky Park, most folks hearing today’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount will have little appreciation for the point that Jesus was trying to make when he told his disciples that they are the light of the world. In Jesus’s day, life was governed by the rising and the setting of the sun. Every night was a dark sky night, an opportunity for exceptional stargazing.
Light was a precious commodity in the Ancient Near East, pushing back against the darkness and extending the day. Travelers caught on the road after dark would rejoice in the tiny pinpoints of light that marked their destination ahead. Every household had an oil lamp, a simple clay pinch pot filled with olive oil and lit to impart a small, warm, golden glow to the simple one- or two-room home that was typical of the day. So, Jesus was making a bold statement when he told his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Just as God had created the heavenly lights of sun and moon, planets and stars, Jesus’s followers had likewise been made with a special purpose: to shine light amid the darkness of the world around them.
That darkness of Jesus’s world had nothing to do with Dark Sky Parks. Darkness for Jesus’s listeners meant the Roman occupation of their land, with soldiers garrisoned from Dan to Beer Sheba, from the Great Sea to the western cities of the Decapolis. Darkness for the disciples included a religious milieu that prized holiness and purity above compassion and mercy. Lepers, demoniacs, and those living with disability were seen as sinners afflicted by God. Tax collectors, scoundrels, and foreigners were labeled unclean and unfit for pious company. Vulnerable widows, orphans, and slaves rarely saw vindication in courts where justice tilted to the highest bidder. In this world where the darkness of occupation, exclusion, and injustice abounded, Jesus told his friends that God had made them to be light.
In this post-modern world where artificial light is so abundant that we have to create sanctuaries to observe the night sky, we are not strangers to darkness. Darkness for us looks like hate, whether it is the systemic racial hatred that puts people of color at terrible risk for brutality or it is the partisan spirit that pits neighbor against neighbor. Darkness for us looks like generational poverty and income inequality in an area where multi-million-dollar camps are nestled among rusted out trailers and poorly heated sub-standard housing, and a quarter of our children qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. Darkness for us looks like addiction, from the family member who can’t make it through the day without a drink to the opioid epidemic that sweeps our nation. For 2020, the most recent year in which data is available nationally, overdose deaths were the highest in history. New York State is part of this national trend. We experienced a 37% increase in overdose deaths, the highest annual amount ever recorded, thanks to the increased presence of the prescription drug fentanyl in the illicit drug market.
Jesus’s followers knew what it felt like to be daunted by growing darkness. As the Lord’s ministry continued, a growing number of powerful opponents would commit themselves to the cause of extinguishing the light of Christ that God was shining in the dark of the first century world. The disciples were tempted to hide their light: they slept in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prayed; they ran when the Temple guards arrived to make an arrest; they hid in a dark, locked room until the risen Lord broke in with a message of peace.
Whether disciples live in the first century or the twenty-first century, darkness abounds, and it can feel overwhelming. We feel powerless in the face of the violent deaths of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols. We feel puzzled by the neighbor who rejects us when they learn that we don’t share their political beliefs. We are saddened by the unending issues of North Country homelessness and hunger. We are frightened by the addiction that touches our families and community. The darkness makes us want to give up and go home, to hide our light under a big bushel basket, plunging our world into shadows where we don’t want to look and we can’t really see. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, and we say, “Who me?”
One of my favorite memes that you can see floating around the internet, from Facebook to Instagram to Pinterest, is by the cartoonist Sandra Boynton, known for her humorous renderings of cats and cows. This meme shows a very worried looking grey cat, standing human-like on two legs against a dark backdrop. In the cat’s paw is clutched a lit candle. The caption reads, “So much darkness. Offer whatever light you can.” It’s a reminder that, like that little oil lamp in a first-century home, even a single light can make a dent in the world’s darkness if we will only cast off the bushel basket and let it shine.
Letting our light shine before others gets easier when we do not do it alone. Something gets lost in the translation of today’s reading from biblical Greek to English. The “you” that Jesus uses—you are the light of the world—is second person plural. It’s collective, speaking to all the disciples, not just one disciple. You—all together—are the light of the world. The darkness of this world is much less daunting when we work together, each shining our little bit to push back against the night.
Churches like this one are a remarkable witness to the power of light shared in the Lord’s purpose. We may not feel effective when we act alone, but our collective gifts, abilities, and actions make a powerful difference. Nine African villages will be blessed with lifesaving clean drinking water this year, thanks to our Christmas gift of shallow wells. Those big pots will fill up on Super Bowl Sunday with dollar bills and cans of soup and our hungry neighbors will get hot meals. A crew of caring deacons comes alongside the pastor and casts a caring net of cards and phone calls, hot dishes and funeral hospitality to ease loneliness and grief of hurting friends. A growing crew of children comes to church, and a corps of steadfast adults joins forces to teach Sunday School, revealing the love of Christ for all God’s children.
Our light shines in more ways than I could possibly name on a Sunday morning. Those collective actions shine a vision of the world that Jesus would have his disciples make. It’s a world where strangers are neighbors, everyone has enough, people feel valued and loved, and our little ones know that they belong to God. We may not singlehandedly end hate, or resolve income inequality, or stem the opioid crisis, but when we work together, the world begins to feel like a brighter place. I think Jesus, who exhorted his disciples to shine their light before others, would like that. May it be so.
Eric Baretto. “Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 9, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 5, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
Amy G. Oden. “Commentary on Matthew 5:13-20” in Preaching This Week, Feb. 9, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreaher.org.
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Throughout Lent, I’ll be sharing a weekly devotion that draws on my travels to the middle east. Here is thesecond.
“Late in the day, the Twelve approached and said to Jesus, ‘Send the crowd away, so they can go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging, because we are in a deserted place here.’
He told them, ‘You give them something to eat.’”—Luke 9:12-13
Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, is the traditional site of the feeding of the 5,000. The location was originally known as Heptapegon, meaning “the place of the seven springs.” Its lush gardens are an inviting place for a picnic or a service of worship. From the fourth century, Byzantine Christians were making pilgrimage to the site. Egeria, a Western European Christian woman and author of a detailed account of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land about 381/2–386, described her visit to Tabgha. She wrote, “By the sea is a grassy field with plenty of hay and many palm trees. By them are seven springs, each flowing strongly. And this is the field where the Lord fed the people with the five loaves and the two fishes. In fact, the stone on which the Lord placed the bread has now been made into an altar. People who go there take away small pieces of the stone to bring them prosperity and they are very effective.” Today the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes has replaced the original Byzantine church. It features the remains of the stone table as well as a splendid early figured pavement (mosaic floor), depicting flora and fauna of the lakeside.
The miracle that Jesus worked at Tabgha began with two facts: hungry people and the reluctance of the disciples to do anything about it. Jesus was clear with his friends: it was their responsibility to meet the hunger of their neighbors. The disciples gathered their little bits: just a few barley loaves and some small, dried fish, the lunch of peasants. But those little bits went a long way. Some say it was a miracle of multiplication. Some say it was a miracle of the Spirit, a satisfying “spiritual” meal. Still others suggest that the willingness of the disciples to share inspired a miracle of sharing in others who opened their packs and passed around provisions. The outcome was a blessing for all and a bold precedent that faithful people have been following ever since.
Questions for reflection: How do you need Jesus to feed you today?
How will you feed others?
Please join me in prayer . . .
Generous and provident God, you make abundance of the most meager beginnings. Grant us the grace to know that you can feed us and satisfy our deepest hunger, today and every day. Renew us in the way of discipleship that notices and cares, feeds and shares. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Lord of abundance. Amen.
He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. — C.S. Lewis
“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“I hunger for filling in a world that is starved.” — Ann Voskamp
Figured pavement, Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee