How’s this for a back-to-school kick off bible verse, “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).” That’s a bold word to read out loud in a congregation filled with teachers. I think I prefer the one Dave read to us from Isaiah, “the Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word (Isa. 50:4).”
What an excellent vision of education Isaiah gives us! The purpose of education, and the role of teachers (among the many other roles we’re asked to fill), is to sustain the weary with a word. This may be easier to apply to those who work with adults, who see how the course of simply being alive takes its toll on people. I have often felt, as I’ve worked with adult bible studies or seminars, that one of my principal tasks is to enliven my students’ minds and help restore a sense of joy and wonder to life. But I’ve also worked with young people in the classroom. My first job out of college was as a classroom teacher with sixth through eighth graders with emotional/behavior disorders. They weren’t weary in the sense of having been worn down over time, but they were fighting epic battles – both within themselves, but also with the labels and low expectations the world had for them. There, too, I knew that one of my fundamental tasks as a teacher was to sustain in them the motivation to keep fighting for their futures, to keep the flames of hope kindled.
But what is true for teachers, that they are called to sustain the weary with a word, is true for all of us. We are, each of us, always communicating – always teaching something about our lives, what we believe in, what we stand for. People listen to the words we say and they watch for a correspondence between what we say and what we do. So we are all teachers of a sort, and still James cautions that not many of us should become teachers, since those who profess to have something to teach are judged by a different standard.
As a “professional Christian,” I’ve felt this different standard applied to me in a variety of situations – sometimes with humorous outcomes. I remember being back in Minneapolis at a downtown bar with friends from college for an informal reunion. One of my buddies had brought a friend along, and we were all standing around a cocktail table enjoying our drinks. When it came out that I was a pastor, the friend of my friend looked mortified. He immediately put his drink down, looked at me with fear in his eyes, and made his confession, “forgive me, I don’t really drink!”
I reached across the table, lifted his half-drunk cocktail and took a sip. “That’s too bad,” I replied, “I enjoy a drink with friends at the end of the day.”
Perhaps you’ve felt it too. The judgments and expectations people have of you when they discover that you’re a church-goer, or a Christian. We live in a culture that, sadly, has learned to expect moralism without reflection, piety without generosity, and judgment without grace from people who call themselves Christians. This is what James is getting at when he begins his diatribe against the tongue,
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
I’m not really a fire and brimstone preacher – you’ve all learned to expect a healthy dose of gospel with the law out of me, of grace alongside judgment. But, wouldn’t this be a fun text to get down on? James is preaching tough love to the early church, saying in effect, “you who call yourselves followers of Jesus, who are charged with sharing the good news of God’s unconditional love, mercy and justice, can’t even control your own tongues!”
The question with James all along has been, “what difference does your faith make in how you live your life?” As we’ve worked our way through this letter for the last three weeks, as we will continue to do for the next two, we have listened in on James’ efforts to elevate the level of conduct in the early church – a church that was looked down on in the general culture, that was regarded as weak-minded, superstitious, seditious, blasphemous and heretical. He’s saying, “we’ve got a hard enough struggle ahead of us, trying to share what God has shown us in Christ, please don’t make it any harder with your unrestrained tongues.” And the moment you claim a Christian identity for yourself, you take on a portion of the responsibility we all share for making a public witness to our faith that is, in fact, reflective, generous and graceful.
Which brings us to the million dollar question Jesus asks of his disciples in this morning’s gospel reading. The disciples have been following Jesus as he worked the countryside, teaching and preaching and healing along the way. They’ve been witnesses to God’s liberating and reconciling intentions for the world. Jesus has sent them out into the world, in pairs, to do the same – and they’ve returned to share their stories of the miracles that took place by faith. Word has begun to spread that something unexpected, unprecedented is happening wherever Jesus goes, and so he says to his followers, “who do people say that I am?” And they answer him, “some say you’re John the Baptist, others think you’ve got the spirit of Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” And Jesus presses them further, “but who do you say that I am?”
Who do you say that Jesus is? Or, when people discover that you’re a church goer, a Christian, one of those people, what do you say? How do you represent? What’s going on here? What are we doing when we gather together week after week, and what difference does it make in our lives – much less in the life of the world?
Who do you say Jesus is?
There’s a whole slew of new books out on the evils of religion, encouraging people to take up atheism. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, or God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. People who are well trained in scientific method, history, philosophy and other academic disciplines are making the case that whatever we’re doing here in church, it’s somehow poisoning the culture. That we’re part of the problem, not part of the answer. They make legitimate arguments about how communit
ies of religious people have stood on the wrong side of so many modern human rights struggles. It’s exactly what James warned us of: beware when you get up to teach, since you’re be judged by a stricter standard.
But there’s something else too, isn’t there? There’s something powerful and life-giving, healing and restorative about making a commitment to community. About practicing that commitment in a local setting, with people who you like and dislike, who you agree with and disagree with, some of whom you call friends – but all of whom you call family. We need traditions and practices and commitments in order to live out that ideal. We need a church. And for those of us who take on the name of Christ as Christians, we need to be able to say something about the one who stands at the center of our community, of our conversations. We need to be able to say something about who Jesus is. We need to be able to answer that question.
Now, please hear me when I say this next part. We need to ask that question of ourselves and each other, “who do you say that I am.” But we do not need to inflict our answers upon each other. I say inflict because we know that there is a mode of doing church that is so concerned about getting the answer right, about being righteous, that it loses people along the way. When Jesus asks this question of the disciples, Peter responds, “you are the messiah.” And Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.
What to make of that? Jesus asks us a question – one that lies at the center of our faith, “who do you say that I am,” but then he orders them not to impose what they’ve discovered on others.
There are some questions whose answers can only be discovered, not learned. Faith is not like the SATs or the GREs or the GMAT. You can’t cram for it. It is a way of being, a way of holding yourself in the world. It requires attention to the world around you, and the world inside you. It requires an active, dynamic, passionate spirituality as well as a curious, imaginative, engaged mind. It even takes more than just coming to church on Sunday. It takes a commitment to ourselves and to each other. It requires teachers to sustain us when we become weary of the questions, weary of each other, weary of ourselves.
And here I’m going to just go ahead and make a plug for a couple of opportunities we’re offering you at St. Luke’s to deepen your spirituality and to engage the questions that shape our faith. Last week we started up the adult education hour, with a commitment this year to focus on the lectionary, the weekly texts for worship. We’ll be finishing up our unit on Proverbs at the end of this month, and staring a six-week unit on the gospel of Mark on October 4. If you’re not already a part of this weekly study, consider joining us in October for those six-weeks. The curriculum we’re using is broken into 4-6 week units that are free-standing, so you can always opt in or out for studies that are more or less interesting to you.
Or, consider joining the “Living the Questions” seven-week seminar that I wrote about in the September newsletter. I’m going to be teaching a 21 session curriculum on progressive Christianity, broken into three 7-week sessions, starting on Wednesday, October 7. In this first 7-week series we’ll be talking about how we as modern Christians, fully immersed in the 21st century can take scripture seriously without disengaging our critical minds, how to think theologically, and how we understand the dominant stories and motifs of scripture. Most of us have advanced education in specialized fields, but ended our religious education around the eighth grade. It’s no wonder then that we feel ill-prepared to have a robust, fearless conversation about our religious practices and our faith with people who aren’t already a part of this community. This is an opportunity to address that.
And let’s celebrate that this morning we have resumed our early childhood faith formation program. It’s small to be sure – sometimes only one child, sometimes three or four, but it makes it clear that we have a commitment to lifelong religious education. We want to start working with our youngest brothers and sisters as early as possible so that they grow up understanding the church as the place where we ask the question, “you do you say Jesus is?” and the place where we support the whole process of exploring that question and others for the rest of our lives.
May the God of all wisdom and knowledge guide our speech and bless our questions. Amen.