Friday, July 2, 2010

Where's the Sermon on the Mount!? Jesus' initial talk is near never mentioned at the mission.


"The Sermon on the Mount," a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, done by Cosimo Rosselli
When a group fails to show to lead the congregants in praise and worship, to give testimonies and deliver a sermon, the burden [though he certainly doesn't feel it to be a burden] falls on Donny Braninburg, the Union Gospel Mission's Eagle's Nest Ranch Supervisor, to give the night's sermon to the guys.

Though "failure to show" has been very rare, there's been a spate of no-shows recently, and Donny's considerable skills as a preacher have been on display three times in the last two weeks.

In his most-recent talk, Donny made the point that if Jesus were around in Sacramento at this time, he would expect Him to come to the mission. We the congregants at the mission, the undercaste of society, impoverished, plagued with extreme problems of various sorts, would be the very folks Jesus would likely most want to fraternize with and teach.

I'm probably not spiritually plugged in nor knowledgeable enough to express an opinion on something as woolly as what Jesus would be doing if He were in Sacramento today, but I am arrogant enough to say what I think: I think Donny's right!

But this brings to the fore several questions I want to deal with here: How much like the undercaste of Jesus' place and time are we of the undercaste in Sacramento, today? What message can the mission crowd glean from The Sermon on the Mount? And why do preachers who come to the mission fail to bring us the message of Jesus' inaugural talk?  I ask this because I recall no instance of the Sermon on the Mount being mentioned by any group preaching at Union Gospel Mission, and having asked others, who have been around longer than I have, neither do they recall mention of The Sermon at the mission.

I snagged a book I found at the Central library to help me with my investigation: Understanding the Sermon on the Mount by Harvey K. McArthur.  It's a wee book, under 200 pages, but scholarly and seemingly forthright and objective and keen on focusing in on controversy regarding that first one of Jesus' sermons. [I note that wikipedia uses McArther's book almost exclusively in its section on interpreting The Sermon on the Mount.]

In Christianity's blooming, beautiful first three centuries, chapter five of Matthew and and the sequence of chapters five through seven, where text re the sermon is at the fore, were far the favorites and most discussed chapters and sections of the New Testament.  Early Christians, who were communities of deeply loving people, were crazy, nutty, wild and enthralled by The Sermon on the Mount.

Later, reverence for The Sermon broke down more than bit — but not because it was disparaged, rather because people were unsure what the heck The Sermon meant and the fact that it didn't suit the effort to convert people by grace. And, it's requirements were too severe, maybe. The "competition" that the Sermon on the Mount had was Paul's message, from his many letters, which takes up the lion's share of the the New Testament, as determined by the Nicene council that put the Bible together, selecting those books which "made the cut."

The Sermon on the Mount, you see, is poetic and grand, welcoming and compassionate, but expects a lot, possibly leaving many worldly-successful Christian people without prospect of getting a mansion in heaven.

Some love The Sermon.  Others, much less.  Yet others, not at all.

Gandhi loved The Sermon, second only to the Bhagavad Gita.  St. Francis of Assisi embraced The Sermon and believed it fully literally … and lived it.

Martin Luther, father of the Lutheran church, hated The Sermon, calling it "the devil's masterpiece" of mischief.

Taken literally or almost literally [with a view that it is hyperbole], The Sermon says that people should become extremely meek, mild, compassionate, loving, righteous and good.  And that doing this, they find the path to heaven.  Paul, in his epistles, never speaks directly of Jesus [which is rather surprising] and he certainly seems to instruct that people are saved by faith and grace, alone.  [This, re Paul, is disputed, btw, by Elaine Pagels, who says that the epistle that is now I Corintians 15 was understood, in its time, to mean that Paul knew, as the leaders in Corinth knew, the resurrection story was a myth.  But Paul instructed that the Corinthians accept the myth, to better lead people to heaven's gate.]

So, which is it: Saved by grace or good works? It's a prime question that plagues Christiandom to this day.

I understand, and accept, that the mission preachers present a literal view of the Bible text.  And that there is much in the Bible that instructs and supports a teaching of "saved by grace."  But the preachers all tell us they believe the whole of the Bible is text either dictated by God or fully inspired by God.  It is inerrant and fully true.  The absence of mention of the The Sermon becomes a curious omission.

I understand that the preachers who come to the mission don't commiserate with each other and don't coordinate what they preach with brethren preachers on the schedule.  Thus, on some rare occasions, three preachers will talk about the same thing in a week's time.  [The Prodigal Son; David and Goliath; the Jonah story; and Abraham almost slaying his son are frequent sermon topics.]

I understand, too, that many preachers come to the mission hoping to "hit a home run," and save a boatload of souls in one fell swoop.  And that talking about The Sermon might not have a snowball's chance of meeting that high hope.

Still.  Someone should talk about The Sermon.  It's big.  And it's out there.  And I'd bet many of the best of the regular preachers have something - even a lot - that they can say.

So.  What of my questions:

How much like the undercaste of Jesus' place and time are we in the undercaste in Sacramento, today?

We are different than the peasant class of Jesus' place and time.  Most of those people were fully uneducated, worked very hard and scraped to get by, and because of how the Jewish religion was taught, they were pretty much fully expected to be left out of heaven.  But Jesus said they were the last who would be first.

We in the undercaste in Sacramento can't find work or enough of it or don't work, though there is a massive amount of talent 'out on the streets.'  Jesus and the mission folk mightily want to save our souls.

What message can the mission crowd glean from The Sermon on the Mount?

We're listening, O Mission Preachers.  Tell us.

And why do preachers who come to the mission fail to bring us the message of Jesus' inaugural talk?

I hope it's just a random thing, and because of reasons discussed in this blogpost.  I expect it's not because it's the Will of God.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Nagarjuna said...

The mystic-sage Eknath Easwaran said that if nothing were left of Christian scripture but the Sermon on the Mount, we would still have the very core of the faith and all that we really need to serve as our blueprint for an authentically Christian life.

It is indeed sad that so few "preachers of the Word" preach this most essential part of the Word. Fortunately, Easwaran has written a remarkable book, "Original Goodness," that uses the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount as the aforementioned blueprint for genuine spiritual development and transformation, and the Rev. Jim Wallis' work with Sojourners also seems grounded in the Beatitudes.

It's just too bad that Christianity doesn't have more people like THAT to put its best face forward. Instead, we have a ridiculous menagerie of hellfire and brimstone ranters, "prosperity gospel" hucksters, gay bashers, and the ungodly like doing more to discredit the faith and turn people away from it than all the atheist "bashers" ever could.

July 18, 2010 at 8:27 AM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

Thanks, my friend Nagarjuna. I will seek getting a copy of the book from the library.

July 18, 2010 at 3:39 PM  

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