I preached at the Dover Church again this morning. The Scriptures for this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, were Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6, Colossians 1; 11 – 20, and Luke 23: 33 – 43.
Many years ago, a friend of mine and I spent our lunch breaks discussing the nature of teaching. Both of us were high school teachers at the time; Mark taught art and I taught chemistry. Both of us were also teachers after the fact, having graduated with degrees in art and chemistry respectively and then getting our teaching credentials. Because we had both taken a slightly different route to the classroom than the typical art and chemistry teacher, we had a different outlook on teaching. You could say that we were an artist and chemist who taught as opposed to an art or chemistry teacher.
I cannot say whether one should approach teaching from the standpoint of the subject matter first or from the aspect of how to teach first. I would, of course, be partial to learning the subject matter and then learn the best ways to teach it. The problem, though, has been that we have opted for people to learn how to teach first and then learn the subject matter. Because of the depth of information that must be learned in both areas, the amount of subject matter learned is often minimal. This continues to lead to situations where individuals teach subjects in which they only know the basic information.
For most people outside education, this is fine because the attitude is that if you know how to teach, you can teach anything. All you have to do to be a successful teacher is apply a particular formula, make sure that certain things are accomplished during the school year and one is considered a successful teacher. In today’s society, this means that you have a number of tests that your students must take and all you have to do is make sure that they pass those tests.
All of this is contradicted by research that shows successful teachers do have a true understanding of the subject as well as how to teach. And they have a desire for their students to succeed, not now but later. It is reflected in the dialogue between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich in the play, “A Man For All Seasons.”
Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.
We have turned our educational system into an assembly line rather than a learning process, where each student fits a particular mold, where they have done the “right things” and meet all the criteria so that they could say that they are educated. It is a process that, like practically everything else in today’s society, focuses on the bottom-line. It sacrifices creativity, critical thinking, and analytical thinking (long-term goals) for short-term gains.
It is a mentality that paints the world in black and white with no shades of gray. It leads to a world where there are winners and losers and it is the final score that counts, not what you did. It puts more value on the things that you have than who you are as an individual. It is a mentality that says that who you will be tomorrow has already been decided and, if you don’t have the right qualifications, then you are doomed to lead a life of failure.
We are at a point in time where the church and its message can offer much and provide answers for the questions that cannot be answered through traditional methods. T. S. Elliot, in his book The Idea of a Christian Society, written just before the beginning of World War II put forth the thesis that only a renewal of Christian culture could rescue society. It is an idea that has merit today. In fact, there are many who would seek such a renewal. But the Christian culture that he might have been thinking of was and still is not the Christian culture that is so much a part of our lives today. And the Christian culture of today, sadly, is not the culture of the Bible or of the early church.
Today’s church has bought into the bottom-line mentality of society; which is sort of a shame. The church today seems more interested in its own survival than it is in the survival and, more importantly, the success of the people of God.
The problem is that, to borrow a phrase from Colin Williamson, we spend more time thinking from below than we do thinking from above. And the church’s thinking and its adaptation of secular society have driven many away from the church, when they should be seeking the church as a means of answering the questions that plague and distract them. Jeremiah, in today’s Old Testament reading, put it best, “we have driven away the people.”
Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant, of a new relationship with God through Christ. But it seems to me that unless we cast aside our present way of thinking, if we don’t start challenging some of the common notions about the Bible and the church, we will never get many of those who have walked away to return. If we don’t begin to reconsider what it is that the church is supposed to be and what it is to be a Christian, we are going to be faced with the situation in which we find it impossible to make any changes.
When Jesus began His ministry, He echoed the call of John the Baptist to repent. Repent means to start over and begin anew. We must begin to see the words and actions of Jesus in a new light.
Now, in one particular cycle of the lectionary calendar, we might have been reading from the Book of Job through the final weeks before today. I struggle with the Book of Job, probably because there are times when I see in traditional settings. But the Book of Job, along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and the Song of Solomon, are considered part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. These books offer a different viewpoint than what is expressed in the other books of the Old Testament.
But there isn’t a counterpart to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Unless, that is, you consider that the wisdom taught by Jesus and written throughout the Gospels is such an alternative wisdom. And contrary to the path of practicality and prosperity that passes for wisdom in most cultures, including our own, the wisdom that Jesus taught was a subversive wisdom.
Jesus led his followers away from conventional wisdom (this is the way that things are done) to a deeper enlightenment and understanding. He showed more compassion for people than one might gain through traditional learning. What did He do when he encountered individuals hurting and in despair? He didn’t give them lectures on the need to do things correctly; no, He healed them, He fed them. Most importantly He loved them.
Now, there is a warning that comes when you consider the nature of this learning; Jesus was executed because the ideas that He professed and taught threatened the norm of society.
It wasn’t simply that He taught subversive ideas but that He did it in a subversive manner as well. It wasn’t new information but information presented in new ways. It forced the listener to take the information and make it their own. It is a difficult process for the hardened soil of conventional wisdom must be broken up and prepared so the seeds of new thought can be planted in this fertile soil.
And that is the problem. Conventional wisdom tells us that hard work and righteousness will make you prosper. You reap what you sow and good things happen to good people. Conventional wisdom tells us that the robe that Jesus wore must have been made of some exotic fabric or the finest kind of silk; why else would the soldiers have gambled for the robe and other belongings at the foot of the cross as described in the Gospel reading for today?
This is one of the verses that allow many pastors to proclaim without hesitation that Jesus was wealthy and that we can be too. It ignores the facts that the soldiers always gambled for whatever belongings the condemned owned or that Jesus told his disciples to travel light and depend on what they could be given.
We are reminded that conventional wisdom tells us that we attend to the matters of the family before we leave to follow Jesus. Conventional wisdom tells us that we can make the decision as to when and where to follow Jesus.
But the decision is not ours. We cannot decide to follow Jesus when we feel like it; we have to go, as did the disciples, when we are called. And when we are called, we have to answer; we cannot say that we must first bury our parents or say goodbye to our friends and family. No, we must move forward; as Jesus told us, when our hands are on the plow, we cannot look backward. Nor can we expect to continue life as it was before we are called.
In preparing this sermon, I was reading Robin Meyers’ Saving Jesus From The Church and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. The conventional wisdom is, as Meyers wrote, that faith and belief being almost interchangeable in today’s society and that challenges to one’s understanding of Christ and Christianity are not allowed. There is one meaning and one understanding; you accept it or you don’t. If you accept it, you win; if you don’t, you lose. But this is not the meaning of faith as it was presented two thousand years ago. Faith is far more than automatically believing.
Bonhoeffer wrote of one’s faith allowing one to believe. The call to follow Jesus must be done through faith. If one chooses not to follow but rather stay behind, it is impossible to believe. Being called by Jesus moves one out of one’s comfort zone. It would have been very easy for Peter to stay with his boat and remain a fisherman all of his life. He could have told all his friends and those who might drop by that “yes, Jesus was a friend of mine and I had some interesting times with Him. But it was easier staying here as a fisherman.” We can say the same thing; we can still come to church every Sunday and our lives will remain the same.
But Peter didn’t walk on the water until after he chose to follow Jesus. If he hadn’t taken the risk, he would have never learned the true meaning of faith. And that is the same for each one of us. We hear the call and we hesitate.
In our world of conventional wisdom, winning means taking no risks; it means keeping what you have and getting more. To go off and follow Jesus is a losing proposition because we have to give up all that we have. In giving up all that we have, we give up our identity. And that is a frightening proposition in today’s society.
But Saul could have not been the minister to the world that Paul was. In order to spread the Gospel message from the Galilee to the world, he had to become Paul. Each of the disciples was empowered to take the message beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone. They had chosen to follow Jesus when He called; they had to go to places they had never been.
The world that we are offered through Christ is a different world than the one we see. Too often the world we see has no opportunities, the world seen through Christ has countless opportunities. For many, the world today has no hope, no promise. Yet, through Christ, there is a hope and a promise of a new day, a new beginning. We have come to the end of a cycle of readings and songs. Next week, we begin preparing for the coming of Christ.
We hear Him calling to us to come and to allow Him to be a part of our lives and for us to be a part of His. To follow is to win; to stay is to lose. We find that our minds and our hearts are open to new opportunities and to new possibilities. Paul wrote of how God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. Our lives change when we answer the call; we find new meaning in life, we find hope instead of despair, we find promise instead of rejection, we find life and not death. We do not think of winning or losing but rather of celebrating the Presence of Christ in our lives.
I used Faith in a Secular Age (Colin Williamson, 1966), Saving Jesus From The Church (Robin Meyers, 2009), and The Cost Of Discipleship (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1959) in preparing this sermon.