There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way. You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube. When done well, they are quite engaging.
A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount. I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.
I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.
However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.
First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it. Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount. I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure. All that was really useful. However, I learned more memorizing it out loud. I saw things I would never read in a book. These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.
Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it. When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text. However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves. When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it? When is Jesus standing or sitting? What props did Jesus have handy? Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to? Did he have a loaf of bread in hand? When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm? When did it convey compassion? When was Jesus being ironic? When was he being solemn? Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash! Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it? What do you do after you say, “crash?” Do you get up and leave? Do you issue a call to follow Jesus? Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?” This brings me to. . .
Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words. I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews. I think that structure is something like:
Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)
Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)
Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)
With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions. I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.” So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit. I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!” Still, I didn’t know how not to do it. After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.
Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation. I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it. But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography. . .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about. This brings me to,
Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean. Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting. “Don’t worry about food and clothes! The pagans run after those things!” “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!” In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!” Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!” It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers! Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts. . .” Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil? Yes, yes Jesus did.
Sixth, there are softer parts too. The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice. Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly. The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion. The beatitudes are beautiful. There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find.”
It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does. The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen. The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners. The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.
In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me. My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.
Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets. That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!
Blessings on your weeks! May they be full of God’s provision and protection.