I have been pondering for some days how I can respond meaningfully to what is going on in the United States and stand alongside my black sisters and brothers there and here in the United Kingdom in some useful way at this time of upheaval and anguish but also of increased awareness and hope. I have decided to raise funds for the Equal Justice Initiative by offering online performances of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) for any group of any size who would like to hear it. This text offers us a kind of mission statement for Jesus and his followers, but non-Christians will, I think, also be interested in it. Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, and countless others across the centuries have been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount in their struggles against racism, fascism, social injustice, and oppression, and these teachings offer challenge, wisdom, and comfort to us now as they call us to strive for the perfect wholeness of love. The title of this post is a reference to the call to perfect love, expressed in Matthew 5:48. (If you would like to hear more about that, I preached on it recently. Here is a link to that service at First Presbyterian Church of Wooster, Ohio. My parts, the sermon and benediction, begin at 33:30 if you want to fast forward, but it is an entirely lovely service if you would like to have a time of worship.)
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is committed “to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.” The photo at the top of this page is of Raise Up by Hank Willis Thomas at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is part of the important work done by EJI. (For a New York Times article about the memorial, click here.) EJI’s founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson, whom Desmond Tutu has described as “America’s young Nelson Mandela,” has written an excellent book, called Just Mercy. I am pasting in his TED talk below so that if you have not read Just Mercy, you can hear what EJI’s work is about. You may also have seen Stevenson in the film 13th, in which he is one of a number people interviewed, and he is given the last word. Just Mercy has also been made into a film, which you can rent online in the US and UK. The book is compelling and easy to read and will perhaps inspire you, as it inspires me, to want to be part of the effort to change systems that oppress the poor and vulnerable among us and especially now to be part of the struggle against racial injustice. Stevenson manages to write even of horrible things with hope, and we need both — to understand the truth and to be hopeful about how we can be part of changing what is horrible and unjust. Your group might like to read Just Mercy or watch the film — or perhaps the TED talk below — in conjunction with this performance of the Sermon on the Mount and your donation to EJI. EJI has received the highest rating from Charity Navigator, so you can feel comfortable donating there.
For each performance I do, I would like to raise as much money as possible. But I am hesitant to set a minimum or suggest a maximum because I am willing to do it for a tiny donation if the group for whom I am performing cannot afford to pay more or if its members are there for the sole purpose of confronting racial injustice and are themselves raising funds for that work. I hope you will give as much as you feel is right for your group. I do understand that there are many important causes now in this time of global pandemic, including organizations addressing hunger and poverty and those working urgently to change the relationship of human beings to our planet in time to save our shared home. I do not want to keep anyone from hearing the Sermon on the Mount and engaging with the cause of racial injustice on the basis of lack of funds when everyone is going through so much. But I have chosen to request contributions to this specific charity because I think this is a good moment for all of us, but white Christians in particular, to look for creative, effective, compassionate ways to be part of the ongoing struggle against systemic racism, to be actively anti-racist, and this is how I am able right now to participate prayerfully and lovingly in this good work with you. I also believe that the Sermon on the Mount is a good text for this time in our history. It is wonderful for any time, but maybe we need it especially now.
When I say I will “perform” a biblical text, I mean that after having studied the text, I have also memorized it as one would a script (mostly in the New Revised Standard Version, but I make a few adjustments to texts if I think the translation can be made clearer for performance or if I think people will be missing the King James at some moments). Then I do my best to make the story my own and then to embody it as truthfully and creatively as I can, so that you may feel invited to engage with it as you would with a piece of theatre or music or poetry and to have a creative experience of it in yourself. For me this is an experience of God’s love for the world.
If you have seen me perform, you know that I normally move around and use the space as creatively as I can in a carefully choreographed way. I am not doing that in this case. I think it is easier for people to hear me on an online platform if I do not move around, and this text doesn’t lend itself to quite as much choreography anyway (although I can make a dance of anything if I put my mind to it). I will just talk to you as if we were together around a kitchen table or sitting in a garden – but what I am saying will be the words of Matthew 5-7.
I have been performing biblical texts for about 20 years (the Gospels of John and Mark, Philippians, Jonah, the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew, and the Pentecost text in Acts), but this is my first time performing this text. I was preparing to do this as part of a series of Bible studies I was to have presented this summer for the United Reformed Church General Assembly (here in the UK where I live), which has, of course, been cancelled because of the pandemic. I chose this text because when I happened to be reading Matthew last summer, I reached these chapters and found myself not wanting to leave, so I began studying them and praying them and reading them before bed and carrying them around with me and writing poetry about them. Then early this year, I decided that in addition to teaching them at the General Assembly, I would perform the Sermon on the Mount as part of the first lesson because I wanted people to experience the sweep of the whole.
Even if you are familiar with these chapters, I hope you will hear something new — I always hear something new in any text when I return to it — but this one has so much in it that I think none of us can keep it all in mind without returning to it again and again. Hearing all of it reminds me of the relevance of these teaching while helping me curb the temptation just to take the soundbites I like. I am encouraged to ask and seek and knock to find the relevance in all of it in my life as a citizen of the world and of my two countries and as a lover of the part of the world that is closest to me in my own heart. I felt this last summer, and now that the world has turned upside down and shaken us in recent months I feel it even more. Perhaps you will feel that way too.
The performance will take about 20 minutes. You could have it as part of a Bible study or an online peaceful protest gathering or just for a group of friends (or strangers!) curious about what this famous text might say and looking for something to do together online — it is fine if the group is very small (it is fine if it is just you — with me, that will make two, which is a group). Again, your group need not be Christian or religious — I am happy to share this experience with any group interested in hearing a first-century text told live from 21st-century pandemic Britain. For the groups with whom I have shared this so far, I have begun with a time of stilling our bodies and minds to become present in the moment and present to God so that we come to the text together as a time of prayer. I find this a fruitful, loving way to approach scripture. These first groups have also requested a time for conversation afterwards, and I am delighted to hear your thoughts and questions if that is something you would like. But I am also happy to offer the Sermon on the Mount on its own if that is most helpful to you.
I will perform on Zoom or Teams or Google or any other online platform you can set up, or I will set it up for you. I have flexibility about time. I am five hours ahead of the East Coast of the US (so when it is 6 p.m. there, it is 11 p.m. here). I am willing to do some late-night (for me) performances, which would allow you to have the performance in the early evening Eastern Standard Time and in the afternoon on the West Coast. But feel free to ask for whatever time you need, and you will probably receive! I am mentioning the US because of all that is going on there now and because I am from there, but feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested anywhere on the planet. The EJI website takes donations from around the world, and you will be donating directly to them.
When you donate on the EJI website, please mention my name in the comment box you’ll see there and say that your donation is in response to my performance of the Sermon on the Mount, and if you are comfortable doing so, please forward me the email receipt for your donation. Again, any size donation is just fine, and it is fine to do it before or after the performance and to make one donation for the group or to let participants make their own donations. My interest is not only in raising money but also in raising awareness of EJI’s work and the issues they are addressing — and to place that work of addressing injustice in conversation with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount about what it means to love as God loves. You can click here to go to the EJI donations page.
I am asking that no one record these events. But I am happy to do rain-check performances! I want us to share this experience live, and I also want each performance to be an opportunity for someone to discover and consider again the work of EJI.
In addition to Stevenson’s TED talk, I have also shared below, a clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Love your enemies” sermon, and here is a link to his 1963 letter from the Birmingham City Jail. Both seem as relevant now as they were almost 60 years ago. Click here to visit the King Center website and read about the King Philosophy, which includes his six principles of non-violence and the six steps of nonviolent social change.
If you’d like to have me do a performance of the Sermon on the Mount for your group in support of the Equal Justice Initiative, please write to me at MedaforEJI@gmail.com.
I wish you all well in this time of disorientation and pain for so many, from which I hope new peace and light will emerge in our lives as individuals and as citizens of the US and UK and Earth. As always, I join you in praying for the suffering of the world God loves and in giving thanks for the joy and hope and abundant love.
Grace to you and peace.