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The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ greatest hits

For Walter Canter, one tragedy of the Revised Common Lectionary is its compression of the Sermon on the Mount. His invitation: read the whole thing. If Jesus had an album of his greatest hits, this would be it.

Photo by rakhmat suwandi on Unsplash

“I mean … it’s a sermon, right?”

The idea that we read the entire Sermon on the Mount in my presbytery’s regional cluster had just been proposed. We were a collection of rural, small church Presbyterian ministers flung haphazardly across a limestone plateau kissing the southwest of Appalachia, and, for some reason, the idea felt strange … too easy, perhaps.

“Yeah, and, like, Jesus said it.”

“Well … Jesus and Matthew-ish

“Right…”

“Either way, it’s a sermon, and it’s in the Bible. That’s a thing.”

“It is a thing.”

“Let’s do it!”

As we read the entire Sermon on the Mount in a tucked-away church in a nearly-forgotten town, I fell in love with the passage. And I realized that one of the tragedies of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is its treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. The RCL tucks this nugget in the time between Epiphany and Transfiguration, introducing Matthew 5 on the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Like a movie edited for time and content, the RCL cuts the sermon into fragments offering enough plot to talk about it around a water cooler but leaving out some of the juicy bits.

After a thorough, four-week dive through chapter five, and the annual Ash Wednesday visit to the verses around (but for some reason excluding) the Lord’s Prayer, the final parts of the Sermon on the Mount are benched like starters at the end of an already settled end-of-regular-season sporting event. Unfortunately, this means these top-notch texts often get passed over.

For instance, due to the movement of Easter this year, the calendar drops the last reading from chapter 5, the not Ash-worthy parts of chapter 6, and all of chapter 7. If the Sermon on the Mount is Matthew’s compilation of Jesus’s greatest hits, the RCL shows favoritism to Side A: “Beatitudes” through “Heavenly treasures” and neglects Side B bangers like “Don’t worry,” “The golden rule,” “Ask/search/knock,” “The narrow gate” (if you’re looking for a solid deep track), and “Wise people build on rocks/fools build on sand.”

To bring insight and attention to these Gospel words, a pastor could fill a 12-week sermon series hitting up the brilliance of Matthew between “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” and “…great was its fall!” (5:3; 7:27) but the passage, for my ears, is best delivered all at once.

Rather than accepting partial nibbles, feast on the whole.

There is beauty in hearing the words of these three chapters as a single unit — listening to the whole album, not just the singles. Something wonderful happens when these teachings are juxtaposed as written. It’s the power of the wholeness of the thing – I feel the same way reading the last 10 chapters of John’s Gospel in the week before Easter – there’s something powerful to hear the words out loud, in order.

I get goosebumps when I hear the whole thing and think that these words have been heard and said in many different languages, places and times by many saints. As I hear and feel the unity in the text and the voice of the one reading, something about the timelessness of Christianity falls into perspective. And then the reading is done and the person who was reading shuts their Bible, and a little voice in the back recesses of my Christian imagination breaks the silence with Buddy the Elf-level excitement, “JESUS!!!! I know him!”

That knowing is a kind of love. And I loved experiencing it in that little sanctuary tucked into the corner of almost nowhere. Jesus went out to a mountain in that service and made it somewhere with his words.

The RCL readings for the time after Epiphany offer us a small taste of the awesome that is the Sermon on the Mount. Rather than accepting partial nibbles, feast on the whole. Make an occasion to read it with company. Sunday worship is an obvious opportunity, but if that doesn’t happen, find a friend or two with pleasant reading voices and make it happen at your home. You’ll be rewarded with Jesus’s greatest hits (according to Matthew) ear worming into your soul.

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