Students Find the Sermon on the Mount Speaks in Today’s Central Valley

Students Find the Sermon on the Mount Speaks in Today’s Central Valley

What do a 2,000-year-old text and California’s Central Valley have in common? This question could sound like the set-up for a really awful joke, but it’s a query that I regularly ask my students to take seriously as we study the Bible together. Given that the Bible was written long before smartphones, electric cars and social media, just what relevance does this text have for today? The answer: quite a lot, actually!

Just this past semester, for example, I had the joy of journeying with students as they explored the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. On the one hand, there are parts of this text that have such value that they have endured for centuries, both in Christianity and beyond. For example, Jesus’s articulation of the “Golden Rule” in Matthew 7:12 encourages his audience to do to others as you would have them do to you. The relevance there is clear. On the other hand, though, some parts of this text could seem incredibly out of touch. After all, I haven’t seen many one-eyed or one-handed Christians walking around, despite Jesus’s clear warning about removing such body parts if they might lead to sin (Matthew 5:29-30). So, where can the stalwart student discover the significance of this text for today?

I challenge students to face this question directly as they consider how this ancient text might address the needs and the questions of 21st-century audiences right here in the Central Valley. So, for the major written assignment for the course, students choose a social issue facing our region and learn more about it. To do this, they venture off campus to meet with regional leaders who can shed light on the realities of life in the Central Valley. Some students interview leaders at the Poverello House to learn more about homelessness. Others check out the Marjaree Mason Center to find out about the impacts of domestic violence. Still others head out to the United Farmer Workers (UFW) office to learn about how immigration policies affect the agricultural workers who keep the Valley’s agricultural production running.

No matter where students choose to conduct these site visits, they inevitably return to class with a renewed sense of the social issues facing their region. At this point, we consider together how Jesus’s instructions about social issues in his context and culture might translate into ethical imperatives for the settings that they visited. As they consider what Jesus instructs in the Sermon on the Mount, I ask them to imagine how those instructions might be translated into a sermon inspiring to the parts of the community that they engaged. Often, students will craft moving sermons that make it clear that they understand how Jesus’ words roughly 2,000 years ago continue to echo into the modern-day world of Fresno.

Whether they realize it or not, students who complete this assignment are contributing to the realization of FPU’s strategic goals, or GEIST. This plan calls for FPU to “Innovate Creatively” and “Serve Courageously.” As students wrestle with the ways in which a text that is over 2,000 years old can be relevant to the Central Valley today, they develop biblically based and innovative solutions intended to serve some of the most vulnerable populations in our region.

While I always hope that class assignments will challenge students to innovate and serve more eagerly, this particular assignment has had a special impact. A few years ago after one student conducted her site visit at the UFW office, she returned to class energized by the experience. She told our class, “I thought I might want to be an immigration attorney before this visit, but since doing this assignment, I now know for sure that this is what God wants me to do with my life.” That student went on to become a regular volunteer with the UFW as a result of this encounter orchestrated by a classroom assignment.

For that student, the ancient words of the Bible came to life as she read them alongside the “text” of communities in the Central Valley. Both the ancient words of Scripture and the revelation of God’s Spirit at work in our region worked together in accomplishing another aspect of GEIST: purposeful transformation. I pray that FPU students will continue to encounter God both within the “texts” of both Scripture and experience as they pursue their educational and vocational goals.

Connections
Melanie Howard, Ph.D.

Melanie Howard, Ph.D.

assistant professor and program director of biblical & theological studies