Not a bible study per se, but this sermon from our pastor is the best I've heard on Jesus as a teacher, and what this means for us. I'm a teacher in my real life, so it hit home pretty well. Or it was a not so subtle message to me to shape up?
16 Pentecost: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38
The arrival of Fall and the return of students to school has me thinking about my school days—my public school days at Greenhills High School in Cincinnati. Ms. Meier has been on my mind this past week. She was my French teacher. She loved the language, had a deep passion for the country of France, and, yes, also had a little edge to her—an edge that primarily was about changing the world. She was a progressive, and in Cincinnati I didn’t know many progressives. She contributed to my world being changed and enlarged.
I also have been thinking about Ms. Schmalz. She was a short unattractive, conservative lady. She never married, in part because, I am convinced, no one could put up with her oddity and her preoccupation with gerunds, split infinitives, and dangling participles. (She was my English teacher.) If you know me, you know that odd Ms. Schmalz affected me, shaped me. The passion that came from within her and drove her became some of my passion.
I have also been thinking this week about Mr. Cooper. He was quite good looking; all the girls seemed to like him. He was my psychology teacher. Psychology was new in those days. Before then we were somewhat dumb when it came to understanding human behavior. Now, we were getting smart, and we were figuring people out. Mr. Cooper, however, didn’t misuse the power of this new-found knowledge. This psychology stuff had shaped him, changed him. He taught in a way that indicated that the subject matter wasn’t just some distant intellectual reality, but something real, something life-changing, something that mattered. Human behavior—its oddity, its idiosyncrasies, its predictability—all of a sudden became a big interest of mine.
Teachers change lives. They shape the future of the world. I find it to be a bit ironic that the readings for today deal with teachers and teaching. On the weekend after school starts and the weekend when we begin Sunday School we hear all about teachers and teaching. It amazes me how the lectionary (the list of readings that we are given for each weekend) can connect so much to the lives we lead. For many in our culture, this is a week about teachers and teaching, and serendipitously, our readings seem to know that. What they have to say about both is worth our consideration.
We start with Isaiah who tells us that the “Lord God has given [him] the tongue of a teacher.” Isaiah’s task is to speak to weary exiles in Jerusalem who aren’t so sure that they are glad to be back home. Home doesn’t look so good. They and their relatives had been elsewhere, being forced by the Babylonians to leave their home. Now they are back, and things at home aren’t stellar. Their city is a mess. Maybe they shouldn’t have come home, some of them must have been thinking. Isaiah is to be like a teacher to them. And believe it or not, one of the tasks of the teacher is to bring comfort, “to sustain the weary with a word.”
Interestingly, the word that is translated “teacher” can also be interpreted as “one who has been taught.” The Hebrew there is a bit problematic. But from my perspective, that interpretation is a fascinating take on what it means to be a teacher. A teacher is one who has been taught. The prophet says morning by morning God wakens him—wakens him to listen as one who has been taught. Teachers are fundamentally learners, being passionate participants in their subject. Their subject is larger than they, so they sit at its feet. They learn from it. They learn from those who know about their subject, even their students. And Isaiah would have us know, they learn from the One who is not confined by the wisdom or the understanding of the world. For me, that means that in their being taught and in their teaching they are humble. They subject themselves to something much larger than themselves. For Isaiah that something—God—is that which enables him to stay on track even when he faces such great opposition.
James is our second experience with teachers and teaching. He warns his readers that becoming a teacher is not for everyone. “Not many of you should become teachers,” he says, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Probably his advice has to do with teaching in the church, but I think it can be understood in a broader way. James’ reluctance to allow everyone to teach is rooted in his belief that what teachers must use—their tongues—are not easily controlled. For James the tongue may be a small part of our bodies, but it has so much effect. The tongue is a fire, he says. And a big forest can be set ablaze by a tiny flame. In other words, the tongue can do great damage; it can inflict great pain. Not many people are able to control it, which is why many people shouldn’t become teachers, according to James. Teachers need to control their words; they need to keep their tongues tamed. They do impact many lives; they do shape the future with their words. So James says if you want to teach you need to know how to use your words in a way that brings blessing. And he’s not convinced that many people are capable of doing that. For him, the tongue “boasts of many exploits,” is “set on fire by hell itself.”
While thinking about this sermon, I picked up Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach. Palmer argues that what is needed in teaching today is not the latest teaching technique, the fanciest style of imparting information, the most up-to-date technology. In a world that thinks that what is most important in life and education can be measured or quantified by tests, Palmer says what truly matters is teaching that is brought to us by teachers who have a strong identity and great integrity. You can try all of the latest tricks and still not get at what is at the center of good education: teachers and who they are and how their lives are integrated into their teaching.
The last couple of weeks we have been hearing from Jesus that what makes us unclean is not that which originates from the outside and comes into us, but rather that which comes from within and proceeds out of us. The tongue is such an evil, the words that we speak are so harsh often because of what is inside. And inside is about our identity, who we are. The best teachers are the best human beings.
The best teaching is not about technique. It’s about bringing your humanity, its rawness and also its settled-ness, into a deep conversation with the wisdom of the ages and the students who sit at your feet. And when your identity is strong, when it is, I believe, rooted in your status as a secure child of God, the words out of your mouths, oh teacher, oh human being, oh candidate for president, can bring not pollution, but blessing. You won’t have to be tearing people down with your words so that you feel better about yourself. You won’t have to be spewing out anger or cynicism because you have all kinds of issues that you haven’t worked out within yourself. You won’t always have to be speaking words of defense. You won’t always have to be winning the arguments. Knowing who you are, having a strong sense of your identity—and this is true for all human beings, not just teachers—will mean that with your words, your teaching, you can bring wisdom, affirmation, blessing, good news, fresh, not brackish water. You can begin to change the world, impact the future for good.
We who are Christians can’t talk about teachers and teaching without talking about the great Rabbi, the Great Teacher: Jesus. Our gospel lesson from Mark today speaks of Jesus teaching. After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he begins to teach them that “the Son of Man [that is, he] must undergo great suffering.” I am struck that Jesus had to teach his disciples about suffering. Sometimes suffering has to be taught. It’s not normally a part of our learning covenants. (Oh, I will become proficient at suffering at the end of the class.) And truthfully, it’s not a part of many teacher’s lesson plans. It wasn’t a part of Peter’s. That’s why he rebuked Jesus when Jesus announced to his disciples his upcoming death. Can’t be! Not suffering and death! That’s what most of us say, which is precisely why we need to sit at the feet of the Great Rabbi, the teacher of much greater wisdom than us.
We want to go into the world ready to conquer it, to overcome it, be victorious. Armed with ourselves, we are prepared to protect ourselves, defend ourselves, keep ourselves away from suffering and death. And the Great Rabbi says, “You are living in an illusion. If you want true life, if you want life that maters, if you want life with God, if you want life that is in keeping with who you are as a secure child of God, then suffering and death cannot be avoided. The way of that kind of life looks like a cross. It looks like death to yourself. Secure selves are not protected selves, defended selves, selves kept at a distance from risk and pain. Secure selves are those who, because they are secure, can let go of themselves for the sake of love in the world, for the sake of participation of the pain of the world and the pain of God, for the sake of the kingdom, the reign of God.
That’s what the Great Teacher taught. And amazingly, he not only spoke those words; he lived them out. He was a teacher, as Palmer says, with great integrity. His lived life matched his words. Secure in God, he loved, he risked, he entered the pain of the world, he embraced the left out, he set his face like flint, he denied himself, he gave up his life, he went to the cross. What he said he did.
Jesus is the Great Teacher. Without a doubt, he has changed lives and is continuing to do so. He is shaping a new future, God’s future. Sit at his feet. Learn from him. Pick up your cross and follow him.
Christmas Card 2013
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