Sermon: Sunday, June 15, 2008: Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 11

Texts:  Exodus 19:2-8a  ;  Psalm 100  ;  Romans 5:1-8  ;  Matthew 9:35 – 10:8


In the name of Jesus, our teacher and our freedom. Amen.

There is a subset of movies in the category of drama that I love. Just like the broad heading of “action/adventure” has subsets like “buddy flick” or “cop drama” there is a niche within dramas for movies about teachers who take on tough classrooms under less than ideal conditions, who win the hearts of their students and make a difference in their lives. I don’t know what you call this genre. “Heartwarming Teacher Drama?” I don’t know.

I do remember the first such movie in this vein that I saw as a child. 1967’s “To Sir, With Love” starring Sidney Poitier as the teacher with a heart of gold who takes a posting in a tough urban classroom in London. You know that movie is older than I am, but it used to be a staple of Saturday afternoon television when I was growing up – back in the days before Netflix and Blockbuster, when the only chance you had to see old movies was when they came on television late at night or over the weekend. I went online looking for trivia about that old movie and found a picture of the original movie poster. It reads, “a story as fresh as the girls in their minis… and as tough as the kids from London’s East End.”

For a young person whose days were basically defined by teachers and their lessons, this movie struck a deep chord. Here was a teacher who fell in love, in the best sense, with a class full of screw-ups and losers and helped them see themselves as lovable, capable and intelligent. He took a group of people with very little hope for their future and opened up their imaginations to new possibilities for their lives.

A number of other movies in this vein came along over the years: Edward James Olmos in “Stand and Deliver,” Michelle Pfiffer in “Dangerous Minds,” Richard Dreyfuss in “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” I love them all, well all except for “Dangerous Minds,” but “To Sir, With Love” holds a special place in my heart.

These movies all tend to follow a general outline. A new teacher comes to town, she’s struggling with troubles of her own and gets assigned to the toughest kids in the school. No one expects him to do better than keep them sedated and out of trouble. The kids are jaded, rude, and immediately test the new teacher to see what they can get away with. The teacher gets in close with the toughest kid, does something to connect – to turn their lives around. The classroom realizes that someone cares, that someone has their back. They give the teacher their loyalty and their hearts. Then the teacher crosses a line, goes too far to help the kids, pushes a principal or an administration too far. The teacher gets fired. The kids want to revolt, but the teacher tells them they’ve come too far to throw their futures away. She encourages them to take what they’ve learned and to make their lives better, to make the world better. The movie generally ends with the students throwing a party or finding some way to thank the teacher for the difference he made in their lives and we, the audience, understand the power of one person to change the world by caring for others – one life at a time.

Does this sound at all familiar?

The readings for this morning are filled with teachers whose ministries share the general outline of the “Heartwarming Teacher Drama.” From Exodus we hear the voice of Moses, the O.T. – the Original Teacher. To a people who had lived their whole lives as slaves he says, “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

In Romans we hear the voice of Paul, a man who had been one of the toughest kids in the class, but whose life had been turned around by the love of God – who understood what it means to have someone believe in you, to love you in spite of yourself. When he says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” he is speaking from personal experience.

And in the gospel we hear the roll call for the first class of kids from the wrong side of the tracks:

  • Simon – the Rock, the one who denies Jesus and who God still uses to build the church;
  • Judas Iscariot – the zealot who wanted Jesus to lead the people in a violent overthrow of the Roman occupation. The one who betrays him to his enemies.
  • Matthew – a tax collector, a collaborator with the Roman enemy. A narc.
  • And all the rest: Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas, James and Thaddaeus and Simon.

They’re not a very impressive group. We know very little about most of them, and the ones who stick out are full of failings and betrayals. But Jesus chose them, invested in them. Jesus took them on in love, taught them, involved them in his miracles of healing and then – as we hear today – he sent them out and told them to do the impossible. He commissions them to do all the things he’d been doing since they met him. Jesus tells this motley crew to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Then he adds, “you received without payment; give without payment.”

We should take a moment here to think about what this last little statement might mean. What is Jesus referring to? The twelve followers, who are here called apostles because Jesus is sending them out, are told that they received without payment. What have they received? Has he cured them, or raised them from the dead, or exorcised their demons? What has God given these feeble men that they are instructed to give away?

Paul says, “therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” I think Paul is saying something to the Romans, to us, about what it is that the apostles received freely, and what they were told to give away just as freely. It is love. It is the invitation to belong to something beautiful and larger than ourselves. It is the opportunity to start your life over that comes when someone steps into the classroom of your life and looks at you and says, “it is good.”

I don’t know what you call this genre of movie, but it turns out that the original script doesn’t start with “To Sir, With Love.” It is the gospel, it is the good news of God’s love for us coming as a free gift. We, who gather to hear this story again and again, week after week, like a Saturday afternoon of classic movies, understand that we are the classroom full of screw ups, and we come here to find the teacher who will love us, believe in us, put us back on our feet and commission us to take what we’ve learned here out into the world and give it away.

In this season of graduations – for high schools and colleges and seminaries – we get a reading this morning about another kind of graduation. Having listened to his teaching and preaching, having observed his miracles and the faith they produced, the followers of Jesus are told to go out into the world and to give away what they have learned – one life at a time. The students became teachers, in a long line of teachers in a lineage that stretches through the centuries to people in our own lives, our fathers and mothers, our pastors and our teachers… and us. We are called and we are commissioned to leave the classroom and find the fresh-mouthed girls and the young toughs and the crusty old codgers and the jaded skeptics and the broken-hearted and the worn down, the harassed and the helpless. We are sent out as student-teachers into a classroom as big as the world.

Go. Proclaim the good news. The new creation has come near, it is being born among us. Cure the sick, bring life to the dead places, call the outcasts home, see past people’s pain to the beauty that is in each of us. You received all this as a gift. Now, go and give it away.


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