Monday, September 17, 2018

Sermon: "The Trouble with Teaching", Isaiah 50:4-9a/James 3:1-12 (September 16, 2018)


Sermon video here.

Now that school has been back in session for a month or so here in Idaho, and we’ve resumed our full Christian Education program here at FPC, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about teachers. I mean, we all know how important teachers are, right? They’re the ones who help us to grow into better people by opening our minds, supporting our exploration, and encouraging our discoveries. The best ones help us to understand and appreciate things that we previously had little interest in. I bet that most of us can easily recall a favorite teacher of ours from our past—and it might not have been a school teacher. Friends, family, extracurricular leaders, neighbors, pastors, even folks you meet on the street: any of these people could wind up teaching you.

We find teachers everywhere. They’re in classrooms, in church, at work, or even in random interactions on the street. Some teach through formal lessons, and some teach through informal conversation. All teachers have their own teaching style, but the best ones approach their craft less as a bestowing of knowledge and more as an intellectual journey that they travel alongside their students. They don’t force their perspective on others; rather, they share and engage the subject matter, allowing their passion and excitement to infuse the material. Whether they’re teaching us basic grammar, advanced calculus, manners, or God’s Word, teachers play an important role in making the world accessible to their students.

The trouble with teaching, however, is that it’s a difficult, demanding, and often thankless job, no matter what kind of teacher you are. I wish it weren’t the case, but it is. Even though they work long hours and often use their own money to buy classroom supplies, public school teachers regularly make less than similarly-educated professionals in other fields[1]. Teachers in the Church run into challenges, too: even though Christian Education is essential to a flourishing and sustainable community, adults often don’t prioritize the Bible studies that pastors work hard to put together, and volunteers are required to find time in their already-busy weekends to teach Bible stories to children. Not to mention the lack of recognition for the less formal teaching that happens outside of classrooms. Unfortunate as it is, our culture doesn’t seem to value teaching the way that perhaps we should. So, it’s little wonder that people aren’t necessarily knocking down the doors for the chance to do it.

I suppose we can find some comfort in the fact that we’re not the first ones to find teaching an intimidating task. Even though it must have been super important for the early Christian community, James seems to discourage his readers from teaching: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Teaching another person, in any context, can seem like a high-stakes, high-pressure activity, and James seems to believe that not many are up to the task. Even though I don’t necessarily agree with this evaluation, I also don’t find it surprising. In the nearly ten years that I’ve been recruiting Sunday School teachers, I’ve discovered that most people tend towards James’ way of thinking—at least, when it comes to themselves. “I’m not qualified to teach,” they tell me, or “I don’t know the Bible that well.” It seems that a large proportion of Christians are afraid of teaching each other. It seems that they don’t trust themselves to “get it right”. It seems that most of us would much prefer to be a silent student than a teacher. That’s the safer choice—far less vulnerable to judgement. Better to wait until we’re more educated ourselves, or to leave it to the professionals.

But then again, who said that being a student and being a teacher are mutually exclusive? Everyone from the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca[2] to modern scientists[3] understands that the best way to learn IS to teach—and scripture apparently agrees. In chapter 50 verse 4, the writer of Isaiah says that each morning God teaches him, “waken[ing] my ear to listen as those who are taught.” But why does God do this? Because “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” You see, the learning and the teaching are connected. In fact, they’re so closely connected that that first part of that verse can be translated alternately as “the tongue of a teacher”[4] (emphasizing the speaker’s role as a teacher), “the tongue of the learned” [5] (emphasizing the speaker’s existing knowledge), or “the tongue of one taught”[6] (emphasizing the speaker’s status as a student). It’s so ambiguous that few English versions can agree on an accurate translation, or even the correct emphasis. Even though we often consider student and teacher as disparate and successive roles, it appears that to God (or at least the writers and translators of the Bible), this isn’t necessarily the case.

So then why do we insist that we’re not ready to teach, that it’s not our place, that it’s not our calling? The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with fear. Friends, we are straight-up afraid of what it would mean to teach others in God’s name. And I mean really, who can blame us? The Bible is filled with threats against those who dare to teach deceitfully in God’s name, the so-called false prophets. Most of us have knowledge or even personal experience of someone teaching scripture in a way that’s destructive both to others and to the work of God’s Kingdom, even though they probably have the best of intentions. James puts it beautifully when he says, “…no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”[7] Whoa. It’s scary to think that our own tongues could be an instrument of harm through our own thoughtlessness. We know that that’s not okay. The last thing we want is to be a part of that, even accidentally.

But that’s the other trouble with teaching: it still needs to happen even if it’s risky. And if everyone’s relying on the next person to take the risk, we all know it’ll never happen. Besides, it’s a huge job—we can’t afford to count on a select, “qualified” few. The Great Commission says, “Go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”[8] This is the mission statement of the entire Church, received directly from Jesus. These are red-letter words, folks. Jesus didn’t say, “Go and recruit whoever you can, teaching them the bits that you feel like you know enough about.” He didn’t say, “Go and make disciples of all nations; but first, make sure you complete at least 8-10 years of rigorous Bible Study and pass a written exam.” No. Jesus calls the Church, the entire church, to go and make and TEACH right now, with the authority given through HIM. Truly, that’s the only qualification we need. It’s a daunting task, but God’s grace is—as always—sufficient for us.

Of course, being “qualified” still doesn’t remove the risk involved with teaching. As James reminds us, we still all make mistakes, regardless of any authority we might have. But the fact is, it is far riskier NOT to teach. If we refuse to teach, how will we remember our heritage, where we came from and how we got here? If we refuse to teach, how will we pass on the traditions and their meanings that connect us to one another and to God, bringing us joy and hope? If we refuse to teach, how will we learn what it is that God expects from us? How, in short, will the Church survive?

The Church and its teachers aren’t the only ones who are at risk, either. We have a global responsibility to share God’s grace and good news; we’re at a point and a place in history where we can’t afford not to teach each other. Earlier this week, the United States and the world observed the 17th anniversary of the September 11th attacks in New York City. There were the usual tributes to those civilians and first responders who lost their lives; these were all emotional and sobering as they are every year. But for the first time (at least for me), I saw several people reflecting on the day after the attacks, too—September 12th. They insisted we must also remember and strive to embody the sense of unity, compassion, solidarity, and love that swelled around the world in the days following this disaster. We must remember how the global community rejected the evil of these acts and chose to embody the good that the world so desperately needed.

This is where God was at work in this terrible tragedy; this is exactly what the Church is called to proclaim. And yet, for those who weren’t yet born on September 11, 2001—and there are more and more of these people each passing day—this isn’t something that they can learn from a textbook. This is something that must be taught and passed on from those of us who lived it and felt it and believe it. And this is something that becomes more relevant each passing day, as our divisions and selfishness and fear threaten to tear our world apart—this world that God loves so very much.

Teaching doesn’t always need to happen in a classroom, but it does always need to happen. We should be teaching our children as well as our contemporaries and our elders; we should be teaching those who share our faith and those who don’t; we should be teaching in the words that we speak and the example that we set with our actions. And most of all, we should be teaching with the posture of a student, recognizing that we are never done learning and that God is our greatest teacher. The trouble with teaching is that it’s rarely easy, and it requires significant personal risk, but if God is our guide, then we shall not be disgraced or put to shame, no matter how many mistakes we make. We shall be able to sustain the weary with just a word—what an incredibly humbling blessing that is!

As a matter of fact, forget about the trouble of teaching—the joy of teaching is that we do it together, with one another and with God. The joy of teaching is that it doesn’t require perfection or qualification. The joy of teaching is that it allows us to continue learning in new and exciting ways. The joy of teaching is that it allows you—yes, you—to change the world for the better. So, go forth and proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, of God’s boundless love and grace, teaching everywhere in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I promise you’re ready. Amen.





[4] NRSV

[5] KJV

[6] ESV

[7] James 3:8

[8] Matthew 28:19-20

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