This is the sermon I preached at Epiphany on Sunday. I happened to have planned my teacher training for the same day and as I prayed over the scriptures for the day -which all seemed to focus on wisdom vs. knowledge, in someway or another- this is what came to me. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t thank one Dr. Tricia Lyons for her friendship and expert editing hand. It really took shape with the prayerful support she offered. It was my first sermon preached to the “whole” Epiphany congregation since folks were back from summer break. I was really pleased with it. The audio can be found here.
Here is the written:
Perhaps I should have reviewed the lectionary for the day prior to planning the Sunday school teacher training to coincide with this particular passage from the Epistle of James.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this verse is a warning… when really it is a reminder of our vocation, blessing and communion. Lest I hear many of you tell me at the ministry fair, “James’ Epistle said I shouldn’t teach Sunday School,” I thought we might dive a little deeper into this warning against the power of words.
Who hasn’t been there: you are having a conversation with some acquaintances and a charged topic comes up. You try to contribute to the conversation only to offend half of the people standing around you. I know I have been there. I’ve said something that was intended to be harmless only to insight debate or, worse, anger. After leaving the situation, I stew over the interaction for days. How could I have said it differently? Did I need to speak up at all?
This week we learned about the horrible attack against the American ambassador in Libya resulting in the death of four Americans; including one man who grew up right here in Winchester. At this point, it appears that the attacks were carried out by Islamic radicals who are angered by an anti-Islam film made here in the US.
The Freedom of Speech is protected in the United States, but exercising that freedom carries consequences – not just legal, but personal. Our Freedom of Speech comes with a responsibility to our brothers and sisters around the world.
That does not mean we should be silent, but it does suggest we show mindfulness in the words we choose. Our words have the potential to get us into trouble just as they have the potential to bring about justice. The tongue is a powerful instrument: As we heard in James 3:4, the tongue is like the rudder of a ship it steers our whole course.
While many of us have the luxury of waiting to engage subjects, in the case of teachers – they must speak when asked. It is the job of our teachers to share knowledge with their students. But in the case of teachers who pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit, they do more than share knowledge: they share wisdom.
As Matthew’s Gospel tells us, we need not fear what we are going to say because “it is the Spirit of God who speaks through us.” (Matthew 10:20)
When I was in high school I was terrible at math. It was difficult for me and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around the concepts. I resigned myself to getting low marks in my math classes because, I thought, “I must not be capable of more.” That was until I was assigned to Ms. Strickland’s algebra 2 class.
You knew how to find Ms. Strickland’s room because you could hear the sounds of Bob Marley, or other great musicians, floating down the hallway between periods. When you entered the room you immediately noticed the painted ceiling tiles and colorful posters on the walls. From first glance, the environment told you something was different about this
class. Ms. Strickland had standing time after school, just about every day, when students could drop in for extra help. She put her home phone number on the syllabus in case you were working on your homework and needed to ask a question. She was serious about her vocation and her passion showed. I learned that the ceiling tiles were painted by students for extra credit: I painted two while I was there. She loved art, and music, and respected the different learning styles of her students.
I got high marks while studying with Ms. Strickland. But what I really took from those classes was confidence. I learned that it was possible for me to understand challenging subjects when I was instructed with care, when my teacher understood my learning needs, and when I put in the extra work needed to succeed.
When James writes his warning to those who might consider teaching he does so because those who teach have the power to form or deform
the confidence and joy of all who listen. As any good teacher can tell you, they encounter situations on a daily basis that require expertise in areas far beyond their particular subject.
When a young student has a difficult time at home because his parents are fighting he will talk to his teacher because she is a safe person who has shown him love. When a college student is facing the challenge of balancing her course load, part-time job, and living on her own for the first time she is likely to talk to her favorite professor about the juggling act. When a nineteen year old recent high school graduate with great promise for the future is gunned down in the street while walking his dog at dinner time (like Jorge Fuentes – the counselor from BSAFE– was this week) students who knew him and students who simply live in that neighborhood and fear the same fate will bring their fear, hurt, and sorrow to school where their teachers will have to choose either to address that pain, or to ignore it because of the dangers inherent in choosing our words.
The calling to teach is one that carries great responsibility… and
the potential for eternal impact. Here at Epiphany the calling to teach Sunday school or to lead youth group is the calling to help our children build a foundation of faith and to dare them to believe that they are loved unconditionally by God. The goal of Christian Formation is not to indoctrinate the learner, but to share the vital aspects of our faith in preparation for a season, or perhaps even a lifetime, of searching for truth. If we are able to share wisdom AND LOVE with our children and youth they will be better prepared to explore the world with a Trinitarian foundation. And what is a Trinitarian foundation?
It is the rock solid conviction of our faith that God is, at heart, in a relationship of acceptance and love forever.
We are all called to take our part in this eternal Trinity of acceptance and love, through the power of Christ.
Living in the trinity is not just our future, through faith and the church, it can be our present.
Christian formation is the process of helping souls of all ages to realize and seize this invitation, made possible through Christ, to enter the very life and love of God.
If, in our teaching, we engage the difficult questions related to social justice, world religions, and our own Christian faith, we prepare our children and youth to enter into the world as critical thinkers. Life is never black and white and we do ourselves a disservice if we approach teaching Christian Formation as if it had simple answers to match our complex questions.
One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that we are a thinking church. We engage difficult subjects and live in a tension between certainty and mystery. The world we live in wants us to have all of the answers; we can do a lot of good if we can teach our children that the process of arriving at a solution is oftentimes more important than the solution itself.
Like the road to Emmaus, Christ can walk beside us in our confusion and doubt, and even is “ever present in times of trouble.”
Ms. Strickland’s math classes were lessons in formation. She taught us to be serious when necessary and to laugh often. She taught us to challenge ourselves and to think creatively in search of solutions. She taught me that I am only limited by my own fears and uncertainties. Ms. Strickland shared her wisdom and love in addition to her knowledge.
James’ Epistle warns about teaching because it is much easier for us to criticize those who teach than challenge ourselves to become teachers. But it is important to note that we cannot experience the tremendous rewards of teaching if we do not try to teach.
The Letter to James reminds us that teaching is a ministry of the Holy Spirit and therefore has the power to change minds, hearts and souls.
The sculpting of souls is perhaps the highest calling of humanity.
BUT GUESS WHAT?
We are all called to teach.
Remember your Baptismal vows?
Either you or someone on your behalf answered yes to this question at the moment of your baptism: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
So don’t think you can avoid the warning in the Letter to James about teaching the faith.
He is not talking to a select group of teachers… through our baptismal vows, his reminder to teach in the power of the Holy Spirit is actually a call to all of us
. Don’t be afraid of what James says… he is speaking to us all.
So let’s all figure out how to respond… as individuals, as families, as friends and as the family of Christ in our Church.
Close your eyes. I want you to call to mind the image of a beloved teacher from your past. Perhaps it is someone who taught you in a formal setting like school, university, or Christian Formation programming. Perhaps it was an informal setting like a family relationship, a colleague, or a mentor. What keeps that person fresh in your mind? Now, I want you to consider how your life would have been different had they shied away from the task of teaching. — okay, you can open them again.
I’m not saying it will be easy – but I can promise that teaching others, in any context, has the potential to change lives; your life, and the lives of those you teach. So, what do you say? Are you willing to change a life?
Through Baptism, we are already empowered to change our life and the lives of others.
As the Paul writes to Timothy, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline
The only thing left to do is start teaching.
After all, we are all called by St. Paul, to “be prepared to give an answer for the hope that [we] have.”
(1 Peter 3:15)
The world is starving for hope.
Christ is our paschal feast.
Take part in that feast today and pray about how YOU can teach our faith to the world.