“Teaching: A Cross and a Gift”
When I am teaching about the Bible, I often point out that the Bible is not just one book, but it is a collection of books. Remember your French, I tell the children. What is the French word for library? (Bibliotheque) Right, the Bible is a “bibliotheque” a whole library of different types of books.
There are history books, and poetry, and collections of letters, and genealogical record books. There are mythic stories, and hymn books, and rule books. Just like a library, the Bible is a collection of books by different authors who lived and wrote in different times and places, but all inspired in a spectacular way by the One God in whom they believed and whom they followed.
This morning’s Scripture passages are the ones assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary of readings for this Sunday, and the Old Testament readings in particular are a celebration of the Bible – of the Word of God that guides, encourages, and corrects us in our living day-by-day. The first reading comes from the Book of Proverbs, one of the Wisdom Books of the Bible, and a collection of short, pithy sayings and advice that we would do well to consider.
But I love the way this first chapter of Proverbs invites us to open our minds to God’s Wisdom in the first place. We encounter Wisdom personified as a woman calling out in the streets to everyone who will listen. Woman Wisdom raises her voice to all who are simple and those who hate knowledge. She encourages them – indeed, she warns them – to seek understanding and wisdom, for by doing so they will live in security and avoid calamity.
As we celebrate teachers today, this text reminds us that as human beings God made us to be thinking beings. We are made in God’s image, and that means that we are capable of thought, of learning, of figuring things out, of coming up with new ideas, of making wise decisions.
Whereas most of the creatures of the earth act in response to instincts, human beings can consider, weigh, and decide. We can explore, research, discuss, and debate. And we can gain wisdom about the world, about ourselves, and even about God and the meaning of life.
Woman Wisdom – the Wisdom of God – calls out to us, inviting us to learn and gain wisdom. Becoming students and teachers is an integral part of who we are as human beings. We were made by God for learning.
But our passage from the New Testament Book of James begins by saying that “Not many of you should become teachers.” Did you wonder about that line when you heard it? What a strange thing to be reading on “Celebrating Teachers Sunday”!
And some of you may be thinking, “No, don’t become a teacher. It’s an awful lot of work. Sometimes it feels like a tiring and thankless job. You pour your heart and soul into it, and you don’t always see the results, and you’re not even all that well paid.”
But those aren’t the reasons that James is talking about. He’s more concerned about the great responsibility that we take on when we become teachers. He says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Perhaps it’s like when people assume that ministers are perfectly good – that we never get angry, or impatient, or swear, or say something that hurts someone. Of course we do, because we’re human! But there are greater expectations of us, certainly. And maybe if we preach every week about how to follow Jesus, there is a reasonable expectation that we try to do it ourselves too.
I think that applies to other types of teachers as well. You may need to work with a pencil that has an eraser on the end because you’re not perfect yet, but you are expected to be pretty good. You need to be a role model. You need to set some high standards for your students.
As we celebrate teachers today, we also acknowledge that teaching is hard. Teachers are human beings, like all of us, and they make mistakes. But teachers have been brave enough and generous enough to take on this great responsibility of leadership, and accepted the role along with the expectations that go along with it.
Now, some teachers may pass along skills to their students through demonstrations – by showing their pupils what to do. But an awful lot of what most teachers do is speaking. You use your teacher voices to call the students to attention, to give instructions and share information, to ask questions, to correct, and to encourage.
And James points out that our words, our speaking, our tongues are very powerful! We can use our tongues either to curse or to bless. We can use our words to scold, to demoralize, and to insult. Or we can use our words to share, to encourage, and to bless. Teachers have countless opportunities every day to use their speaking for good or for ill. What a great responsibility!
And it seems to me that for Christian teachers in the Public School system, it is even more difficult. I mean, you might want to tell your students that God loves them and has a plan for their lives. You may want to teach them about how Jesus forgives them and calls them to forgive others in the same way. Perhaps you feel like you want to pray for them out loud, or at least tell them that you are praying for them.
But in our multi-faith context, things are a little more complicated than that, and your words need to be chosen carefully so that they declare God’s love without imposing your particular faith tradition on the students you are teaching.
It sounds like a very tricky balance to find, but I know that so many of you do it each and every day. You show your faith in the way you speak to your students with respect, because you know each one is a child of God. You don’t need to explicitly name God in order to use your words to bless others.
And it’s not only about how you use your words either. The Gospel text this morning points us towards the Way of Jesus that each one of us is called to follow, whether we are teachers or not.
One of the names that Jesus’ first followers called him was “Rabbi” – the Hebrew word for “Teacher.” And indeed, those friends that hung around with Jesus during his earthly ministry were called “Disciples” which can be translated either as followers or learners/students.
Jesus taught his students both with the words he used – telling them stories and teaching them bits of wisdom and advice. And he also taught them by the way that he lived – by the way he showed love and welcome to the sick, and lonely, and outcast people, by the way he challenged the authorities and was determined to do what was good and right, and by the way that he offered everything he was and everything he had to make sure that everyone would know how much God loved them.
By this point in his ministry, Jesus’ students had come to believe that he was the Messiah. He was a man sent by God to save their people from their oppressors and to bring them freedom and fullness of life. But they thought he was going to do it by taking over with force.
When he tried to explain to them that he wasn’t going to fight, that he was going to be killed instead, and that God would raise him from the dead, they weren’t getting it. Peter actually rebukes Jesus, like a student “talking back” to their teacher!
And Jesus’ response to him is harsh. This is REALLY important, that Peter and the others understand that Jesus is the embodiment of the God of LOVE, not the God of WAR… that Jesus is the incarnation of the God of FORGIVENESS, not the God of WRATH.
And the way that Jesus is going to be the Messiah, the way that he’s going to save them and us from our sins and from ourselves will be to show us God’s perfect love. It is a love that gives everything for the other. It is a love that will not turn to violence. It is a love that is full of courage and hope and determination.
It is a love that knows, in the end, that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, and life is stronger than death. Jesus took up his cross, and gave himself for the life of the world. And because he lives, we know that we will live also.
That Way of Jesus is the Way that we are called to follow. Whether we are teachers, or ministers, or carpenters, or bus drivers, or salespeople, or medical professionals, or lawyers, or homemakers … or whatever our vocations may be…we are all disciples, we are all students who are called to follow the Way of Jesus. And that means taking up our crosses too, giving ourselves fully to whatever work of service God has called and gifted us for.
Teachers, we know that your calling is particularly challenging. So please remember that we are praying for you. Know that God’s Wisdom is a gift that is available to you and to your students. Know that you do have the power to bless with your words and your example. And know that as you follow the Way of Jesus, taking up your cross and giving yourself for others, that you will be blessed. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”