Following the Call: Living the Sermon on the Mount Together
Reviewed by Ken Jacobsen
February 1, 2022
Edited by Charles E. Moore. Plough Publishing House, 2021. 396 pages. $18/paperback; $10/eBook.
If we want Jesus’s ethical teachings all gathered in one place, there is no better Scripture to turn to than the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5–7, known as the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes (the blessings): “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). The trouble and the blessing of the Sermon is that Jesus’s words here turn much of our conventional ethics upside down and inside out. Although there are words of deep comfort and consolation throughout, the Sermon is mostly not a comfortable read, not if we are going to let the words sink in, such as “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10); or “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24); or “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).
Following the Call: Living the Sermon on the Mount Together is edited by Charles E. Moore, a member of the Bruderhof, which is a movement of intentional Christian communities in the radical pacifist, Anabaptist tradition: spiritual kindred of Quakers. The book is a remarkable compilation of commentaries on the Sermon, verse by verse, including over a hundred people of faith from Augustine of Hippo, Meister Eckhart, and Søren Kierkegaard to Dorothy Day, Wendell Berry, and Howard Thurman. Moore’s radical Christian stance comes through in these contributors. They ask us again and again: What does Jesus’s ethics demand of each of us, in our daily living? What in us must change? How might we fruitfully approach such a trove of commentary on Jesus’s core teachings?
For an individual or a Friends meeting, I suggest as a first approach to Following the Call a prayerful reading through of the Sermon as a whole. Note which verses are resonating with you, and those which are particularly challenging. Then read what the contributors have to say on these passages; be in dialogue with them, with Jesus, and with your own experience. For example, in my reading, I resonated with: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8). Then, in Following the Call, I found this surprising insight from Francis of Assisi: “Holiness [purity of heart] is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself . . . and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew.” Another example is “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt: 6:1). In the book, I read the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “A moral deed unwittingly done may be relevant to the world because of the aid it renders unto others. Yet a deed without devotion . . . will leave the life of the doer unaffected. The true goal for man is to be what he does.”
Many such insights—mystical but especially ethical—can be found as this community of contributors work with what Jesus wants to teach us in his Sermon. Beyond the “dipping-in process” that I suggested above, Quaker meetings might want to work along with Following the Call in a more comprehensive manner, using the discussion guide provided at the end. It would take a good year, I should think, for a meeting to “have a deep swim” in the Sermon. And always the Quaker questions along the way: What is my experience of these teachings; how does the Sermon on the Mount live in me?
Charles E. Moore, in Following the Call, brings us a rich opportunity, individually and collectively, to enter into the “good trouble” of Jesus and his soul-shaking Sermon on the Mount.
Ken Jacobsen, with his wife, Katharine, has lived and served in Quaker schools and communities for many years. Since her passing in 2017, he seeks to share the life of the Spirit, as they did, from their poustinia, a retreat house for sojourners at their lakeside home in Wisconsin. Ken is a member of Stillwater Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio (Ohio Yearly Meeting).