Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sermon for Big Ivy U., September 17, 2006

Note: This picture shows the interior of the lovely chapel in which I preached this morning.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
Psalm 19:14

I realize it takes… some amount of nerve, shall we say, for an utter stranger to stand in this particular pulpit in front of students, staff and faculty, and proclaim, “Not many of you should become teachers.” I preached on this passage three years ago in the church I served as an interim associate pastor, and believe me: I scooted right over this particular phrase just as quickly as I could, and I didn’t even mention it in the sermon. Sunday School teachers were always in short supply, and I certainly didn't want to be in the position of discouraging volunteers. But today, in this setting, I feel compelled to address the first verse and a half of our reading:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes…
James 3:1-2a

The author of the epistle follows these verses with extended metaphors about the tongue as blazing fire, locus of iniquity, bearer of poison, etc. to illustrate what I really think is his main thesis: teaching is a risky business at best. What comes out of your mouth matters, perhaps more than you know. It could change the course of lives. Be duly warned.

How can we begin to parse the bold statement, that not many should become teachers? Clearly the writer of this letter did not want the transmission of the Christian message to grind to a complete halt. So we have to find some more nuanced interpretation than “Teaching: Bad.” As I’m sure you all know already context is terribly important, whether we’re studying Shakespeare, cell growth or scripture. What is the context of this statement? Maybe if we can figure that out we can begin to move towards something fruitful for all of us this morning.

I was thrilled to learn in my reading this week that at least one solid, well-known and highly-respected scripture scholar is out there making the case that the letter of James may well be the work of James, the brother of Jesus. That James. The New Testament tells us that James the brother of the Lord was prominent among early followers of “the Way,” as Christians called themselves. To be fair, scholarly consensus tends to place this letter much later than that, for a number of reasons, including the beauty and elegance of the original Greek. There is some skepticism that a native Aramaic speaker could have the kind of poetic style that shows up here. Still, I love the thought of this having been written by someone who grew up in the same household with Jesus. It adds a certain richness and depth to the words. I imagine brothers, scraping their knees side by side, learning their father’s skill of woodworking with the same plane and lathe, dipping their bread together at the table. And of course, to have this person warning about the grave responsibility associated with teaching I find particularly fascinating. Is it at least a partial result of James’ experience of watching his brother, by all accounts a brilliant teacher, get taken down by the powers and principalities? Or perhaps is it his experience of the blazing tongues of Pentecost that informs this warning about the blazing tongues in our mouths?

There are other contextual clues about the letter. The opening, the very first verse of chapter one, seems to assume a primarily Jewish audience. It begins, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations…” (James 1:1). If you read the letter through you will notice that, unlike the letters of Paul, the nature of Jesus, who he is, what he means—is not really treated in this letter at all. The letter is theological, but not Christological. It has been called one of the more “ecumenical” of the New Testament letters for that reason—a work that speaks to those who confess Jesus as Lord as well as those who see themselves primarily as children of Abraham and Sarah. And this makes sense, especially in the earliest years of the formation of Christianity. Jews who considered themselves followers of the Way and Jews who did not were still, in James’ era, one community, working together, worshipping together in synagogue or temple, sleeping under the same roof. The letter of James is, to coin a phrase, a uniter, not a divider.

But to press this piece of context just a little further, I think we also need to remember the role of language, the role of the word, in the Jewish context. Words are seen as innately powerful. In the beginning, all was formless and void; and then God spoke a word, saying, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The spoken word of God causes creation. The word is not just print on a page, scratches on papyrus, or carving in stone. The word is an actor in the world. The word makes and unmakes, it binds and looses. Even nature is seen as being endowed with speech, if we can only attune ourselves to its language. In Psalm 19, which we have heard this morning, the lessons offered by nature and the word of God in Torah are placed side by side, equally compelling movements in revelation:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:1-3

James speaks to a community well versed in the power and importance of the word.

The other thing revealed in the greeting comes courtesy of that word, “servant,” as our translation puts it, but really, the word is “slave.” James calls himself “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My sources tell me that this word suggests “the confident and understated authority of a teacher.” The author, who offers words on teaching, and more generally, speech itself, understands himself to be a teacher. If we recall that the remainder of our passage paints a vivid and ultimately discouraging portrait of the damage that can be done by the untamed tongue, we can venture a guess that James seems to have painful, firsthand knowledge of how badly teaching can go awry. Perhaps it would be good for us to focus on what we know about good teaching, and teachers.

So, as an experiment, let’s all take just a moment to allow our memories to come into conversation with our text. Surely each of us can remember at least one teacher who stands out in our long academic careers, one really good teacher. Who is it? Is it someone who is teaching you linear algebra and Markov chains right now, or is it someone who gave you the basics of addition and subtraction at age 7? Is it your macroeconomics professor or your home economics teacher from the 7th grade? When I pause to try this experiment, I am interested to note that, the teachers who pop into my head aren’t the ones I expect—they’re not the teachers of my favorite subjects, for instance, or the teachers with whom I had the most in common. Instead, they are the individuals who kindled in me a fire of enthusiasm or even love for a subject I’d previously disliked (or which had bored me). They are the teachers of the class I didn’t want to take, who helped me to see that it might just be a rich expenditure of my time after all. The really good teachers are the ones who took me out of myself, of the self I brought into the classroom with me, and who introduced me to a new possibility, a self who liked and learned something completely new.

Ultimately, I think love has to enter into it. The best teachers love both their subject and their students. I had to take an early church history class in seminary. Now, generally, I am pretty interested in all things to do with religion, but there are even hierarchies within that overarching interest. In the case of early church history, it’s fair to say—I wasn’t so enthused. But the class was taught by a droll Englishman, a hip Russian Orthodox priest who explained icons to us and who cracked us up with his jokes. Pretty soon I was hooked on Modalism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and all the other early –isms Christians ultimately defined themselves over and against. I finally realized what a fantastic teacher the Rev. Dr. Early Church History was when I found myself, nearly a year after graduation, cutting out a letter to the editor from my local paper because a debate had broken out in Binghamton over 1800 year old heresies, and I just knew he would be tickled to death to hear about it. He was.

Love of subject and love of students—a genuine interest in the student that goes even beyond the classroom and the final paper—these are the things that make for excellence in teaching. And I’d just like to say—that’s a pretty tall order, and a pretty exhausting one, all that love. That’s enough to make any of us pause, and wonder: is this really what we want to get ourselves into? Especially when we consider the rest of our verse: “….You know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.”

These last two points are worth our attention: First, teachers will be judged, and that judgment will hold us to a higher standard. James is certainly not commenting on the tenure system, but rather on the consonance or connection between what the teacher teaches and how the teacher lives. And, of course, missing from the entire conversation so far is the content of the teaching. James is not talking about teachers of philosophy or history or mathematics. He is referring, of course, to faith itself. To quote from an earlier moment in this same letter, James is encouraging his audience—teachers and non-teachers alike—to be “doers of the word, as well as hearers.” If the main content of what you are teaching is “Love thy neighbor,” and you are seen, with your blazing tongue, to be eviscerating that very neighbor, you will be judged appropriately, says James. And here is a huge point of connection between what James teaches and what Jesus—his brother? Our brother—teaches: “The measure you give will be the measure you get,” says Jesus (Mark 4:24); and, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me,” Mark 7:6), and “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). For Jesus and for James, what you say and what you do must match up, must make sense, must not be in conflict. If you are a teacher, you’d better know that going in.

“All of us make mistakes.” Here is where I think the truth of truly great teaching lies: in admitting when we are wrong. It lies in remaining open to new information, information such as, “Well, that experiment didn’t go the way I thought it would,” or, “Hey, this looks like a civil war.” Truly great teachers remain students their whole life long. We all, all of us, every last one, make mistakes. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Good teachers, great teachers, are not bowled over or destroyed by that information. They go forward, they try again, they act like they students they are.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters. But of course, you will, in this room, to a degree disproportionate with the rest of the population. You will, many of you, engage in the risky business that is teaching. So, since you are going to do this thing, or since you already have done this thing and have no intention of stopping… I think James would advise you to know, really know, how powerful are the words that come out of your mouth, that come out of all of our mouths. He would tell you to let every word that blazes forth from your mouth be a word spoken in love; to love your subject and love your students. And he would certainly encourage you to remain a student yourself, open and learning every single day. And may the words of all our mouths, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in the sight of the Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

No comments: